By Stuart Miller . . .
In Deepa Purohit’s Elyria, most of the characters are off-balance, trying hard to get back to a solid footing that has gradually or suddenly slipped away from them. Unfortunately, the play itself struggles with the same problem—there are compelling scenes and uniformly winning performances from the cast, yet the show is frustratingly uneven, adding up to less than the sum of its parts.
The play opens in Elyria, Ohio in 1982 with a surprise encounter at a community event for Indian immigrants. In the midst of a traditional dance, Vasanta and Dhatta, now both in their forties who were friends a lifetime and several continents ago, spot each other and quickly retreat, like fighters to their neutral corners.
From there we gradually meet the other characters, learn how they all fit together and the numerous secrets that haunt them all. There is plenty of story, yet the play often feels static—it’s not a memory play but much of the plot involves the past and the characters don’t really have a narrative arc in the present.
Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose) is a hard worker who seemingly wants to set down roots; given her lower class status in her own society and how it ruined her chances at happiness in her youth, America offers real opportunity for her. But her charmer husband, the dreamer (or schemer) Shiv (Sanjit De Silva), is grabbing at shortcuts to elevate their status.
Dhatta (Gulshan Mia) dotes on her son, Rohan (Mohit Guatam) and has had a peaceful if limited marriage—arranged way back when—with her husband Charu (Bhavesh Patel), a successful doctor. She has kept secrets from both her son and her husband, damaging all of them and Vasanta’s arrival threatens to blow everything up. Meanwhile, Rohan, a college senior has his own secrets, which almost surface in his budding friendship with Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman).
There are some fun period touches in the scenes between the two boys– a disparaging comment about Flock of Seagulls, a comical attempt at moonwalking as “Thriller” dominates pop culture— but their dialogue and the actors’ chemistry would have made those scenes entertaining and occasionally moving no matter the era. (Hassanali is a Muslim, which is briefly touched on but, despite the current tensions in India between the government and Muslims, quickly dropped.)
Directed by Awoye Timpo, the show is set square stage, with audience on all four sides and space between them for the actors to work; there are younger versions of Vasanta, Dhatta and Charu, who flit through often silently interacting with each other and occasionally with the older versions of themselves. It’s intermittently interesting but rarely add enough to justify their presence… especially given all the storylines that cry out for more time.
The first act is short, around 50 minutes, yet feels too long, expending its energy on creating an aura and a puzzle for the audience to piece together. The second act clocks in at 80 minutes but ultimately feels too short. There’s a climactic and poignant moment between Vasanta and Charu but the numerous other conflicts—between Rohan and Hassanali, Vasanta and Shiv, Vasanta and Dhatta, Dhatta and Charu, Dhatta and Charu and Rohan– all feel unresolved or rushed and too patly resolved as if Purohit backed away from tackling the toughest scenes to write.
Purohit clearly has plenty (perhaps too much) to say about class and caste, about keeping secrets, about family and love. Much of it is well said and well-acted, yet Elyria never puts it all together in a way that coheres.
Elyria is presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theatre (336 W. 20th Street) through March 19th. Running time is two hours thirty minutes.
PHOTOS Ahron R. Foster
Featured Image: (l-r) Nilanjana Bose (Vasanta), Sanjit De Silva (Shiv), Mahima Saigal (Young Woman 2), Gulshan Mia (Dhatta), Bhavesh Patel (Charu)