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A CurtainUp Review
East is East
By Les Gutman
When I saw the far more modest version of this excellent first play by Ayub Khan-Din at London's Royal Court Theatre, I was struck by its universality. I remember thinking that, despite its seemingly obscure focus on an Anglo-Pakistani family in the town of Salford (England), it was a play that would have a distinct resonance for anyone who had experienced the tension between parents of mixed immigrant status and their first generation native children.
I also felt it was a play that ought to be seen on this side of the Atlantic. A few potential producers even floated through my head: among others, The New Group and Manhattan Theatre Club. So the current MTC staging of The New Group's production, directed by New Group Artistic Director Scott Elliott, is, in a sense at least, a dream come true.
East is East beautifully harmonizes the bedlam of life in a large family and the personal crisis of its conflicted immigrant father. The former is at once touching and very funny; the latter, tormented and ugly. The Khans, George (Edward A. Hajj) and Ella (Jenny Sterlin), live in cramped quarters with six of their seven children: in age order, Abdul (Dariush Kashani), Tariq (Rahul Khanna), Maneer (Amir Sajadi), Saleem (Gregory J. Qaiyum), Meenah (Purva Bedi) and Sajit (Rishi Mehta). If listing all of their names here seems excessive, it is not; one of the work's significant achievements is that it neglects none of them as individuals. We come to appreciate each child at home, at work in the family fish and chips shop and in the niche each is carving for him or herself. Their varying performances, notwithstanding some definite accent lapses, coalesce into a spirited ensemble.
To George's dismay, life in the Khan household centers on his Anglo wife, Ella, and not him. Even her ever-present best friend, known to the kids as Auntie Annie (Christine Childs), holds more sway than the dictatorial George. The warm, jovial relationship of the two women, enthusiastically rendered by both performers, is the heart of the play's comic side.
The play's weight, however, arises from the complex bundle of contradictions that George represents. He is a devout Muslim, proud of his Pakistani heritage and culture. He anguishes over the current fighting between India and Pakistan (the year is 1971, and the issue is the control of Kashmir, still causing warfare today), and longs for the family he left behind. He is firm in his intent to rear his children as Pakistani Muslims which prompts the controversies central to the play: 1. Sajit has somehow escaped circumcision (grounds for Muslim damnation), a lapse that must now be (and is) corrected. 2. The marriage arranged for the two eldest remaining sons, the respectful Abdul and the rebellious Tariq, to the ugly but religious daughters of the wealthy Mr. Shah (Ajay Mehta).
But George comes to this fervor for the arranged marriage with unclean hand, and much attendant guilt. He is known by an Anglo name, not a Pakistani badge of pride; it is he who left a family in Pakistan and never returned; it is he who married an English non-Muslim; and it is he who now is a wifebeater.
Hajj's performance is as uneven as it is shocking. Although he conveys the tortured frustration of this father effectively, he lacks the posture to sustain George's commitment to his agenda much less the inexplicable violence Scott Elliott has him unleash, especially in the show's final scenes. The degree of physical punishment not only seems unwarranted, it's uncalled for. Instead of reflecting the frustration borne out by the script, it diverts the audience into a troubling direction that bears no particular relevance to the story.
It's only one of many diversions Elliott and colleagues employ that ultimately does its own violence to Khan-Din's powerful play. Instead of focusing on story-telling, Elliott has focused on embellishment. True, this play is set in the 1970's, but this fact is of only fleeting relevance. The barrage of such sensory experiences as groovy clothes, metallic wallpaper, music and television apt to the period keeps us from focusing on the playwright's far-broader strokes. Derek McLane's substantial inventiveness has been exhaustingly engaged here. His splitting, shifting, revolving set design is a sight to behold -- but with it, there is a loss of simplicity that ultimately dissipates the play's considerable force.
My advice: go, ignore the sideshow and absorb the underlying thought-provoking gem.
Editor's Note: I saw East is East at an earlier preview. I did not come to it from the vantage point of being able to compare the original English production, as Les did. However, his comments clarified for me what detracted from a theatrical evening that otherwise made a strong and positive impression -- notably the father's excessive violence. Kicking your wife in the ribs exceeds the paramaters of wife beating. -- Elyse Sommer