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Rafta, Rafta...

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Reshma Shetty and Manish Dayal.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

"All love's fallen under suspicion these days." An exaggeration? Perhaps. But this concern, as expressed by a mother trapped in the eye of a hurricane of rocky relationships, rings resoundingly true in Ayub Khan-Din's new play, Rafta, Rafta....

This production of The New Group, which just opened at the Acorn Theatre, looks at love tenderly, but with enough of a cynical (or, if you prefer, realistic) second glance to compel the question of whether it can ever be completely pure. A husband and wife might profess it for each other, but outside influences (or just the passage of time) might intervene, a parent might attempt to protect his or her children and wind up smothering them instead... Perhaps love is under such scrutiny precisely because it's so difficult to quantify?

Whatever the reason, Khan-Din and his director, Scott Elliott, make a compelling case for reevaluating it as an emotion and as a normalizing force for careening adults. The title even suggests the optimal solution: It translates to "slowly, slowly, " the ideal speed not just for pursuing matters of the heart, but the rate at which infatuation, desire, and lust evolve into genuine, lasting devotion. Unfortunately, it also describes the pace of the first half, about all that keeps this play from being a jolting opener to the 2008-2009 season.

Khan-Din has based it on English writer Bill Naughton's 1963 play, All in Good Time (which was made into a 1966 film called The Family Way, starring father and daughter John and Hayley Mills), so its provenance is not in question. Neither is its plot, which tracks closely with the original: Two working-class newlyweds, live with parents for economic reasons, become centerpieces of the gossip world when word gets out they haven't yet consummated their marriage in either the emotional or the physical sense.

Sarita Choudhury, Reshma Shetty, Sakina Jaffrey, and Alison Wright.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Though the action remains in Britain, the perspective has been shifted to that of the Indian population, which feeds the traditionalist thrust of the story better today than most other settings might. Both the young couple, Atul and Vina (Manish Dayal and Reshma Shetty), as well as their respective sets of parents Eeshwar and Lopa (Ranjit Chowdhry and Sakina Jaffrey) and Laxman and Lata (Alok Tewari and Sarita Choudhury), are pulled by the expectations of their culture, and thus are seldom free to say or act as they truly wish.

As long as Khan-Din is exploring this particular landscape, he finds enough poignancy and significance in all the various troubled couplings to energize what otherwise might be crushingly conventional. The bonds between Lopa and Atul, and between Vina and Laxman, are dissected as components of a modern psychological spin on what Atul and Vina's problem might be. Eeshwar has his own reasons for not wanting to let Atul go, part of a very graceful take on a key plot development in Naughton's original. Even Atul's brother, Jai (Satya Bhabha), can't easily relinquish his crush on Vina.

But these self-tangling stories reach critical dramatic mass only once Act II begins. The opening scene, the post-wedding celebration at Atul's house (the tastefully cramped design of Derek McLane) is an interminable jumble of exposition and meditations on honor and responsibility; a few subsidiary characters, who don't appear again until the second act, only clutter matters when they need to be their cleanest. And because Khan-Din must establish and execute Indian wedding rituals that anchor everything to come, the more fascinating squabbles between factions take that much longer to arrive.

Once they do, however, the play hits hard and often with its uncompromising and unapologetic look at blood-borne strife. A swath of fine performances helps greatly, led by Choudhury, one of New York's most magnetic and underused actresses, who finds a firm conviction in Vina's put-upon mother that solidly anchors her side of the debate. Chowdhry is the very model of patriarchal annoyance, floating Eeshwar's innate insensitivity on a stream of affable innocence. Shetty and Dayal admirably modulate their frustration as their pent-up feelings edge ever closer to bursting.

When that explosion comes, encompassing the entire community that created their troubles, it doesn't disappoint. But it does pale compared to the firestorms ignited by the most skilled pyromaniacs Atul and Vina know: their own families. These blazes may char the new couple, but also inspire new growth and understanding of what being married and living together really mean. The irony is that no one else in Rafta, Rafta... knows, either - even after decades for some, they're still trying to figure it out. Khan-Din's gift is in convincing you everyone will eventually get there - if slowly, slowly.

Rafta, Rafta...
Through June 7
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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