When you feel misunderstood or not understood, you want to sit down those who are doing the misunderstanding, and make them understand.
That is the spirit of Jaclyn Backhaus’ India Pale Ale, this year’s recipient of the Horton Foote Prize for promising new American play, which seeks to examine racial stereotypes and the after-effects of racist violence in its story of a Punjabi family, longtime residents of Raymond, Wisconsin.
This Manhattan Theatre Club production comes to us less in anger than understanding; this uneven and unfocused play, directed by Will Davis, wants to reach out.
Its central character, Basminder or “Boz” (Shazi Raja), is a strong and independent-minded young woman who is preparing to open a bar in Madison.
Periodically the play returns to Brown Beard, with the cast extravagantly dressed up as fellow pirates (congratulations, costume designer Arnulfo Maldonado), growling, dancing, and “shivers-me-timbersing” a lot. (The presence of Brown Beard also connects to the colonial-based explanation of how India Pale Ale, the actual beer, got its name.)
Symbolically, the pirate is a fearless traveler as Boz aspires to be, living above law and convention, and smuggling new tastes and cultures to wherever he lands. He is the least violent, best-dressed pirate you have ever seen.
In the present day, Boz has broken up with Vishal Singh (Nik Sadhnani), and her family are preparing for the wedding of her brother Iggy (Sathya Sridharan) to Lovi (Lipica Shah).
Boz has liberal, very lovely seeming parents, Deepa (Purva Bedi) and Sunny (Alok Tewari), who want the best for their children, and Deepa is aided in her speculation, worry, and gossiping by best friend Simran (Angel Desai) as they roll dough.
But Boz wants out of this loving crucible, to forge her own path.
The play moves in odd currents. Boz seems angry, but why? Is it just down to her relationship going south? Is it down to her being furious her brother is the focus of her parents’ interest rather than her? When she informs her parents she’s off to open a bar in Madison, they’re upset rather than judgmental. Her dad tells her she just wants to be happy.
Another curious scene unfolds in Madison, where a beardy, hipster-looking barfly called Tim (Nate Miller) strikes up a conversation with Boz. This conversation, on his side, is a parade of ignorant, lazy racist clichés well-skewered by Backhaus. When he asks where is Boz from he is incredulous when Boz replies Wisconsin. She gently, emphatically educates him about the varied and scattered populations of Indian people living in Middle America.
Tim’s racism and general oafishness segues (unconvincingly to this critic) to charm. However, at least his and Boz’s conversation has some fiber and spark, and Raja and Miller have a sweet, off-kilter chemistry. (Ben Stanton’s lighting, especially in the bar scene, is subtle and powerful.)
It’s not that the violent tragedy that changes the shape of the play is implausible, it is not that we should ever forget the violence of all kinds done to minorities, but the act of violence in India Pale Ale feels imposed, and the fallout from it is plain bizarre.
Tonally, there is no lead-up to it or consequence to this act of hideous violence. It feels inserted for incident, and the portraits of grief and reconstruction afterwards feel bitty and incomplete.
A similar lack of coherence haunts the direction (at one point the under-designed, spartan stage features characters wandering on and off for an extended period carrying dishes and containers of food for the play’s final langar (feast) at the local temple). Tim’s appearance there underscores the play’s let’s-all-get-along philosophy, but we still do not know its characters deeply enough.
The audience is given delicious warm samosas, and Bedi delivers a final speech around understanding and peaceful coexistence. It is beautifully put and won’t find many dissenters attending a play with India Pale Ale’s themes in liberal New York City.
The play is resolutely not angry (apart from undeveloped, oddly written outbursts from the cast’s young men), when the events it sketches would surely produce some anger and raw questioning. A tangle of good intentions and cultural politics do not always a good play make.
India Pale Ale is at New York City Center, through Nov. 18.