Saturday, February 18, 2017

Men in White at Granville Island Stage

Having just attended a Saturday matinee of Anosh Irani's new play, The Men in White, presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company at its Granville Island Stage in a production directed by Rachel Ditor, I admit to being a bit flummoxed by the marketing strategy for the show. The tagline for the work notes that it is "A Tale of Love, Brotherhood, and Cricket." And in promo materials for the premiere that I have attended to with sometimes more, sometimes less careful scrutiny depending on the publication, the general synopsis of the play has focused on how a sad-sack cricket team in Vancouver mostly made up of a diverse array of immigrants (or second-generation descendants of immigrants) from the Indian sub-continent, desperate for a winning season, decide to recruit a ringer. Their choice is Hasan, the younger brother of the team's star batter, Abdul. Hasan toils in the chicken shop of his and Abdul's surrogate father, Baba, back in an impoverished and crime-ridden neighbourhood of Bombay, dreaming of just such an escape from the drudgery--when not pining for the affections of Haseena, a young woman who lives across the street from the shop, and who is studying to be a doctor. And, indeed, it is the relationship between Hasan and Haseena (the only female character in the play) which is emphasized in one of the two promotional photos that have circulated in publicity relating to the play, with actors Nadeem Phillip and Risha Nanda in a happy embrace (the other publicity photo features most of the rest of the cast in their cricket whites). And yet in strict genre terms--whether we assess those terms via the conventions of classical Western drama or contemporary Bollywood film--Irani's play turns out to be anything but a traditional comedy. There is no climactic wedding ceremony, and while the losing team does, in the end, finally win a game, it comes without the aid of the anticipated hero.

Now, don't get me wrong: I am all for subverting genre conventions. It's just that in Irani's play as it currently stands that subversion is introduced as a last inning curve ball that wrenches the drama into completely different emotional territory, which is then not allowed to develop or register in any significant way because of a denouement that, devoid almost entirely of speech, falls fast on its heels. (I realize that I'm mixing my baseball and cricket metaphors here, and to give Irani his due, he does take pains to introduce the cricket term "googly"--a pitch meant to go one way that actually goes the other--in a preceding scene.)

Up until this point, the play proceeds fairly conventionally as a back-and-forth between scenes of a besotted and hapless Hasan, tongue-tied around Haseena and teased mercilessly by Baba, desperate for liberation from his dead-end job, and scenes of his brother's team trying to avoid another humiliating season in Vancouver (the play's wonderfully hybrid set, juxtaposing these geographies spatially while also showing how they overlap imaginatively, is by Amir Ofek). In both locales, Irani is careful to undermine initial surface impressions. The bumpy progress of Hasan's wooing of Haseena is played against a backdrop of gang violence that Haseena herself turns out to be implicated in. And the locker-room shenanigans between the Vancouver teammates belie percolating religious and class tensions that eventually erupt when Doc, a well-educated and wealthy Zoroastrian medical doctor, objects to the scheme to bring Hasan to Vancouver on the same kind of tourist visa that got Abdul into the country, and that he is now in violation of. The fact that the brothers are Muslim and that they, like Doc, hail from the same area of Bombay only complicates matters. Indeed, that all the characters in the play--including the Hindu Randi, who agrees to put up the money to sponsor Hasan--refer to Bombay by its colonial name and not by its current designation as Mumbai (where tensions between majority Hindu nationalists and the minority Muslim population continue to yield violence) speaks to how Irani is consciously weaving a political critique into his play--both of the diasporic baggage of Indian nationalism and of the failures of Canadian multiculturalism. That said, just as Irani ratcheted up my interest in the complicated intersectional dynamics of cross-identity at work in his play, not to mention of how much more fraught are the logistics of immigration for brown and Muslim folks in our current moment, he would wrest me back into familiar genre territory with a trite joke or a romantic cliché.

Rachel Ditor, who in dramturging as well as directing the play was presumably on board with its somewhat schizophrenic structure, elicits strong performances from the entire cast. Props especially to Phillip, Nanda and Sanjay Talwar (Baba) as our Bombay trio, all of whom display an easy and organic chemistry with each other. In the Vancouver scenes, Munish Sharma and Shekhar Peleja bring gravitas and a palpable sense of how heavily their past connections to India weigh upon them in the respective roles of Doc and Abdul (though it must be said that I found Peleja's handling of the decidedly more broken English Irani has mysteriously given his character--in contrast, for example, to the mellifluous lines of his brother--a bit stilted at times). Parm Soor is equally strong as the mediator Randi, and his late Act I monologue about how, despite his family's wealth, he still faced discrimination as a young immigrant to Canada (including from fellow South Asians) is a powerful rebuke to what certain candidates for the leadership of the federal Conservative Party refer to as "Canadian values." Anousha Alamian (Naathim, from Long Division) and Raugi Yu together form an excellent comedic double act as Ram and Sam: the former as an oversexed ladies' man with a penchant for Russian hookers, designer jeans and gold lamé high tops, the latter as the lone Chinese-Canadian on the cricket team, whose lack of success on the pitch--and with women--is nevertheless accompanied by the requisite masculine bluster and bravado. Finally, Kamyar Pazandeh, while having to play it mostly sober and straight as the team's young captain, Tony, does get to display his impressive biceps, pecs and abs on more than one occasion.

A final shout out to sound designer Murray Price, who does a great job of evoking acoustically the chaos of Bombay via revved motorcycle engines and clanging bicycle bells; and also to Amy McDoughall, the costume designer, who has sourced her cricket flannels and accompanying protective wear with care. Would that the play itself had spent as much time figuring out what it wanted to say about the sport as a metaphor for (de)colonization.


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