How often can a deity descend to the Earth and not take you by surprise? It happens in the last third of Huck & Holden, Rajiv Joseph's new play at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, when the Hindu goddess Kali smashes through a bookcase to wreak havoc on the lives of three combating college students.
Clad all in black, wearing a necklace of baby's heads, and possessing four arms (each of which seemingly has a sassy mind of its own), Kali's ostensibly the only way that Indian student Navin, and recently split African-American couple Michelle and Torry can resolve their differences. "Kali changes everything," we're told - usually with bloodshed and a severed head or two. But if they will indeed all be different when she vanishes, her specific impact is minimal: They all began their metamorphoses long before.
Those journeys, more than Kali's actual appearance, are the basis for Joseph's roundly entertaining comedy about choices - and values - embraced and discarded. Navin's story begins deceptively, as a collegiate, slapstick coming-to-America tale about a young man just arrived from Calcutta, who's as clueless about American literature as he is about sex. But as Navin (Nick Choksi) begins exploring his newfound independence, and his burgeoning feelings for the pretty young librarian Michelle (Cherise Boothe), the story transforms into one of unexpected soul and depth.
For Navin is neither shallow nor easily misled - he's resolute in his belief that his family's ways of rigidly planned adulthood and arranged marriages will be the best for him. Though he grapples against increasingly restrictive bonds for the entire play, giving up his ideals for what he simply wants is not a choice he indiscriminately makes. This allows us to better embrace his quandary, and makes his decision-making process (which isn't completely resolved until the play's final seconds) the true, solid core of the play.
There's a bit of lighthearted mysticism in the process - Navin is aided by the memory of a popular Sikh school friend named Singh (Arjun Gupta), who proved it was possible to live life in both his parents' world and his own, as well as the words of Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger (whose characters give the play its title). But Joseph doesn't overdo his literary allusions, and lets Navin's story develop naturally - the Kama Sutra is discussed more frequently than Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye - so that Navin will seem as conflicted, and thus as real, as possible.
Choksi nicely brings this to life, imbuing Navin with an energetic, witty neuroticism that suggests a playful puppy trying to break free of a leash. He's got great chemistry with Boothe, too, who's just as effective playing the free-spirited Michelle. Gupta's suaveness makes his Singh the perfect invisible inspiration for Navin. Only LeRoy McClain disappoints as Michelle's boyfriend, Torry, but he's assigned the most overtly functional character, who exists only to help Michelle and Navin get together and contributes little else. He's also saddled with the show's most unfortunate material, including a lengthy, embarrassing scene in which he gives Navin a graphic sex lesson.
It's here and only here that the writing and Giovanna Sardelli's usually sharp direction pander to the show's intended young-adult audience; Choksi and McClain milk the scene for its full comic potential, but it nonetheless feels out of place among the more mature ideas at play. And there are some moments, especially in the early scenes, that feel unnecessarily labored. But when Joseph hits - most notably when Navin fantasizes about first having sex with his arranged bride, who looks and behaves exactly like Michelle - he knocks scenes out of the park, capturing that complicated area between elation and frustration that most people in their 20s seem to exclusively inhabit.
And, of course, there's Kali, fancifully realized here as the embodiment of chaos working to establish order, and dazzlingly portrayed by Nilaja Sun. Her careful steps, strenuously stylized hand gestures, and ugly-meets-beautiful dance to cover Navin and Torry's fisticuffs make her a hilarious and horrifying joy to watch, and it's impossible to imagine Huck & Holden without sun or Kali. The character, though, is ultimately an embellishment: The characters' confusion and upheaval don't need to be given physical form; Joseph has already delineated them, and their resolution, beautifully in Navin and Michelle.
They, like the title characters, have outlooks on the world that outsiders might not understand, but that won't be easily torn apart by the forces of tradition, history, or even Kali. They're learning together how to abandon some weaknesses for greater strength, and what a wonderful lesson that can be.
Huck & Holden