He Says: India Pale Ale Stalls on a Road in Wisconsin
When I go out for a drink with my fellow theatre junkies, I always lean towards an IPA, regardless of the increasingly negative hipster reaction to this type of beer. Some say it’s a too trendy beer choice, based on the belief that it’s not that refined of a beer. I don’t really believe that, as something about the flavor really works for me and my taste buds. The hoppiness tastes good to me, so when I thought about seeing a play by the same name, I wondered about the twist playwright Jaclyn Backhaus (Men On Boats) had in store for my beer of choice. I was guessing it would be a play on the word, but I had no idea the lengths the playwright would take to flavor the pale ale with Indian culture, and at what cost. I also had to admit that I was clueless about where the nomenclature of I.P.A. came from. Was it truly how it was described by “Boz” Batra, the 30-year-old single daughter within the Punjabi family, played heroically by the very game Shazi Raja (Huntington’s Milk Like Sugar)? Or is the concept of an Indian Pirate with a strange snarl of an accent named Brownbeard a wild creation to formulate a concept for our consumption? Whatever the case, this flavor of theatrical play did not sit as well on my taste buds as my most favorite alcoholic beverage. This tale, India Pale Ale at the Manhattan Theatre Club NYCC Stage 1, is far too earnest and desperate in its socially conscious narrative to permit any sense of ease or pleasure in its indulgence.
It all starts with the mother, Deepa Batra, played warmly by Purva Bedi (PH’s Dance Nation) mopping the floor of her communities langar hall, a social feasting space for family, friends, and strangers, adjacent to the gurdwara (temple) in a small town named Raymond, Wisconsin. Auntie Simran Rayat, played with a crisp and adorably charming air by Angel Desai (Broadway’s 2006 Company), is at her side, helping to create the vegetarian dish that will be served as is the Sikh tradition after services in the temple. Boz is Deepa’s unmarried daughter, and like many families from numerous cultures, her singlehood and independence is treated as if something is very wrong with her and her situation. Boz has other ideas though, secrets that she’s slowly unburying in her backyard. The pirate brogue hangs awkwardly on her lips, but her focus is pure: she is going to leave Raymond, venture out into the world (well, down the road), to Madison, Wisconsin to open a bar. She has beer in her blood, she explains. Blood from an ancient grandfather, the Pirate Brownbeard, who sailed the seas from England carrying beer destined for India, thus the name, and its structure.
It’s a compelling set up, this lineage that inspires this woman to set out on her own, sailing in search for independence and creation, but it gets lost in the details of the family dynamic, the tragedy, the romantic entanglements, and the manic, almost cartoon depictions of her overly distilled ex-boyfriend, Vishal Singh (Nik Sadhnani), her dramatic father, Sunny (Alok Tweari), her crazy brother, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan), his sassy fiance, Lovi (Lipica Shah), and the hard-talking grandmother, Dadi Parminder (Sophia Mahmud). Their antics and tragedies ricochet back and forth as quickly as those lamps that swing distractingly from side to side as the actors walk across the stage. Visually beautiful, but unclear in their purpose, there are some very touching interpersonal moments, that is for sure, but the overall arch seems to broad and filtered through abstract memory games. The wild swings make it very difficult to find connection to the family beyond some stereotypical dance moments, choreographed by play director Will Davis (RTC Underground’s Bobbie Clearly) and superficial engagements of love and fighting that never feel earthbound and real. The women in the cast give this ale some depth and personal flavor, but the men in the inner circle tend to ring false, overdoing their antics as if they had one too many.
Ships did transport beer from England to India, among them a popular October beer, which is said to have benefited from the conditions of the voyage and was apparently highly regarded among its consumers in India. The trapdoor that unleashes the historic characters creak with the sound of a ship sailing through a rough ocean, earnestly pleading for change in a world where everyone is trying desperately to weather a never-ending storm that is blowing in, even today as we watch the news of the mass murder at a Pittsburg synagogue. It’s horrific, these events, brought about by hate spurred forward by a White House that lives and breathes in negative racial discord. I wish this play stayed more focused on the shooting, rather than floating so many other structures already on this boat that is over loaded. It should be trying to make more sense of the situation. and became a statement that is as intuitive as it is inventive in its scenic design by Neil Patel (Signature’s Paradise Blue) and its lighting design by Ben Stanton (Broadway/Deaf West’s Spring Awakening). The costumes by Neil Patel (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim) are colorful and dynamic, raising the hallucinating history tale within a play to greater heights than it really deserves. India Pale Ale needs a stronger and more personal narrative that didn’t feel plucked from a handbook titled, “How to Deal With Racial Hate and Violence“. Utilizing Nate Miller (LCT’s Junk) as the beer drinking Tim as a device to make stereotypical racial ignorance sound more relatable and almost cute in comparison to the destruction and pain that can be released by those filled with hate, and aggression doesn’t sit all that well, bloating my gut as if I had one too many I.P.As.
The playwright described a first draft that included a glossary of terms to help the intended American audience connect to the experience of the Batra Family’s cultural world. Somewhere in that impulse, the defending of “the humanity of my Punjabi heritage“, a theatrical acceptance of universal understanding was discarded. It feels like so many issues are laid out and explained to the point where it begins to feel like a check list of after-school special ideals, teaching perspectives of how “otherness” lives and pervades the culture of America. I feel the playwright, with great and good intentions, trying to grab hold of our hearts, especially in the end, inviting us into the family to mourn and connect, and although my fond affection stays strong and caring, my engagement is stalled. Too many issues tossed my way, left me feeling dizzy and disconnected. I must say that I believe in the cause but not the product being sold.