India Pale Ale play struggles to mix tragedy with humor

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Purva Bedi as Deepa Batra, Shazi Raja as Basminder “Boz” Batra and Angel Desai as Simran Rayat, in the play ‘India Pale Ale’. Photo: Joan Marcus.

NEW YORK – What’s the bizarre link between the massacre of six Sikhs at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2002, by a white supremacist shooter who committed suicide after the dastardly act, and India Pale Ale beer which originated in England in the 19th century? Find that out in the play ‘India Pale Ale’, which debuts at the Manhattan Theatre Club, on October 23, 2018.

Don’t expect to be much enlightened, though.

India Pale Ale, which won the 2018 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play, written by Jaclyn Backhaus, and directed by Will Davis, is a confused tragicomedy that’s as flat and funny as somebody falling down a flight of stairs in a heap, with a broken spine being the result.

The plot centers on members of a tight-knit Punjabi community in a small town called Raymond, in Wisconsin, where everybody knows everybody else; life is an open book.

The local gurdwara is the most prominent, and only place, for community members to gather for occasions, to find solace, revive and keep tradition intact. It’s where the majority of the action in the play takes place.

Sathya Sridharan as Iggy Batra and Lipica Shah as Lovi, in the play ‘India Pale Ale’. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The Batras, whose family emigrated from India generations ago, is set to celebrate the wedding of Iggy Batra (played by Sathya Sridharan), to his sweetheart Lovi (played by Lipica Shah). The parents of Iggy, Sunny Batra (played by Alok Tewari) and Deepa Batra (played by Purva Bedi), who were born and brought up in Wisconsin too, are in a joyous, festive mood, but there is crisis brewing in their household.

Basminder ‘Boz’ Batra (played by Shazi Raja), 29, the headstrong older sister of Iggy, has plans of her own to escape the small town life where she is deluged and besieged by bitter memories, including a broken romance and a sibling who died tragically in India.

Boz seeks freedom, with her own bar in Madison, which would also fulfill her desire to emulate the greatness of one of her forefathers, ‘Brownbeard’ – a notorious Punjabi pirate who ran India Pale Ale beer from India to England.

To complicate matters, Boz hates the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Vishal Singh (played by Nik Sadhnani) is Iggy’s best friend, and an integral part of the wedding celebrations. There is nowhere to run from him in the small town.

Boz finally gets to do what she wants, goes away, and opens a bar in Wisconsin. But even before she’s settled in, comes the news of a shooting at the gurdwara back home. Vishal, who drives down to get her, informs her, a member of her own family is also one of the victims.

Nate Miller as Tim and Shazi Raja as Basminder “Boz” Batra, in ‘India Pale Ale’. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The dead and injured in the attack are all neighbors, friends, relatives; the town is in shock. Boz leaves the key of her bar to a customer (played by Nate Miller) she had met only minutes ago, rushes back home.

Backhaus, who is an Indian American, with her mother having Punjabi roots, tries to look at both assimilation and dislocation of second generation immigrants in America from different perspectives, weaving in flashbacks from yesteryears.

She gives a peek into the arduous task of keeping tradition alive in a community where the young want to break free of antique shackles that restrict them; the aura and lure of modernity that can easily dwarf precious customs cherished by Sikhs.

Where India Pale Ale falls disconcertingly flat, comes across as broken and maimed on stage, is the strange and startling concoction of humor and tragedy, the futile weaving of laughter and pain.

It proves to be as impossible a task as mixing oil and water to make a heady combination, for all to savor with one large gulp. Compounding its complexity of nuances is the reality that in today’s world where tragedy comes too often in the form of a shooting rampage, and one is wary in every public gathering, humor and punchlines in such a storyline is like rain in a desert: it vanishes before it touches the ground.

While the play attempts to find a balance between tragedy and getting back up in the face of racial discrimination, to show how a small town can rise together to counter sudden violence by restoring normalcy in its routine – in this case reopening the gurdwara after the massacre and start its popular langar (free meals doled out by gurdwaras) again, it struggles to display either depth of suffering or the right amount of restrained joviality. Instead, action, mannerisms and dialogue appear rushed, and contrived.

The result is a two-hour long play that rapidly loses momentum, and purpose, except to reach out for tepid, clichéd conclusions.

A dance number in ‘India Pale Ale’. Alok Tewari as Sunny Batra is in the turban. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The cast, except for sterling performances by Shazi Raja, and the versatile Purva Bedi, fail to give off the right Punjabi vibes, joie de vivre, on stage, despite attempt at boisterous banter at times, and even an impromptu Punjabi dance number.

Arguably, it’s deliberate; an attempt by the playwright, Backhaus, to tone down the Punjabi element, given the Batras’ deep assimilation in America; stoke and play up American identity too.

Ultimately, ‘India Pale Ale’ struggles far too often to break free from its strictures, writhes in its unfamiliar moorings, unlike the adventures of Brownbeard, who sailed on merrily in full spirit.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com; follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)

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