REVIEWS: “India Pale Ale” and “Plot Points in Our Sexual Development”
Two new plays opened Off-Broadway last week that, as critic Sarah Holdren of New York Magazine/Vulture points out, are “teaching plays” meant to instruct the audience and broaden horizons on subject matter otherwise unknown or unexplored by most. Here’s a look at “India Pale Ale” and “Plot Points in Our Sexual Development”:
“India Pale Ale” (New Play, Manhattan Theatre Club): Raymond, Wisconsin—pop. 3,944—is a small town 19 miles southwest of Oak Creek. If that city name rings a bell, it is likely because you remember the temple shooting of August 5, 2012 that left six Sikh worshippers dead at the hands of a white supremacist. The suburb of Raymond, a major Punjabi-American community, is the primary setting for Jaclyn Backhaus (“Men in Boats”)’s new play, “India Pale Ale”, a coming of age story infused with Sikh traditions, communal celebration, and a clash of religion, race, and history brought into acute perspective in a fictionalized account of that 2012 tragedy.
As her younger brother, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan), prepares to marry Lovi (Lipca Shah), 29 year-old second-generation Punjabi-American Basminder “Boz” (Shazi Raja) takes a cue from her pirate ancestor—“Brownbeard” the Punjabi pirate!—and decides to chart her own course by opening a dive bar on the outskirts of Madison, a decision her parents, Deepa (Pruva Bedi) and Sunny (Alok Tewari) lovingly support, despite their desire for the family to be together. Refreshing on many fronts—for its South Asian story, female protagonist, and second generation perspective—Ms. Backhaus invites the audience to see their own families in the mania of the Batra family—gossiping Aunt Simran (Angel Desai) and deadpan grandmother Dadi (Sophia Mahmud) are particularly funny—while also offering an authentic story of an established immigrant family perpetually “othered” in their own country. Bar patron Tim (Nate Miller), who, according to the playwright (and confirmed by this critic), “is just so white it’s honestly painful”, can’t resist asking the dreaded “what are you?” question to Boz within minutes of meeting.
The characters are lovable, if mostly two-dimensional, and the dialogue remains sitcom light, despite a sudden, somber plot turn in act two. The play ends with a plaintive plea for forgiveness, hope, peace, and love from Deepa directly to the audience as she ponders the terrorist violence that strikes her own home and the pure joy of the younger characters joining together at the local gurdwara (temple) for a langar celebration (traditional vegetarian Sikh meal) that extends into the theatre as delicious, warm samosas are passed from row to row. At turns humorous, magical, musical, and poignant, “India Pale Ale” feels too self-consciously tooled to educate its mostly-white audience about a subgroup of Americans they might not know—a noble cause in this time of increasing division and discord that ultimately makes for a rather flat and didactic emotional experience. I wish the play hewed more toward its fantastical impulses—pirate sequences and all—than its literalism, but the lessons contained within are nevertheless important, even if baldly deployed. Opened October 23rd; runs through November 18th at City Center Stage I. Discount Tickets.
“Plot Points in Our Sexual Development” (New Play, Lincoln Center Theater) (Critic’s Pick!): rarely have I seen, heard, or read a more honest and raw conversation than the one between Theo (Jax Jackson) and Cecily (Marianne Redón) in LCT3’s magnificent production of Miranda Rose Hall’s new play, “Plot Points in Our Sexual Development”. The subject matter is, as that title suggests, sex, both its alluded to history and its present practice between the two characters. But more than the actual act of intercourse, the play is about love, intimacy, and compatibility.
Cecily is a cis queer woman and Theo is a transmasculine genderqueer person who, as they say, “is not a woman and is not a man, but is kind of a man, who loves lesbian jokes — I mean, WHAT! That is not an option in the Valentine’s display at Walmart!” The first portion of the play shifts between the two as they sit in chairs speaking in turns, facing the audience, about various episodes in their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, sharing seminal experiences in their sexual development, almost all tinged with some shaming of same-sex attraction or sad example of cismale dominance. The two speak truthfully—sometimes painfully, other times tenderly—about their incipient self-discovery until they arrive in the present, an interruption bringing them to face one another, confronting the challenge they’ve just encountered in their intimate partnership—literalizing a penis during intercourse—and how it might potentially upend their entire relationship.
Over the course of an emotionally-charged fifty-five minutes, Jackson and Redón are simply ravishing, dynamic, and magnetic as they play this pair whose profound connection you never once question. These two are undoubtedly in love, which only ups the stakes for their difficult conversation. I left the theatre shook by the truth of Cecily and Theo’s journey—inspired by the dynamics of Ms. Hall’s own relationship—and grateful for the opportunity to see a queer love story so honestly portrayed on stage with abounding focus, unsparing detail, and honorable integrity under the helm of director Margot Bordelon. Human sexuality is far more interesting, complex, and mysterious than that VHS tape in 5th grade led you to believe or the Trump Administration wishes it to be as it makes plans to erase trans people, at least officially, from society. Cecily and Theo’s history sharing exercise is the strongest rejoinder to that closeminded, hateful, and dangerous view of gender and sexuality, rebutting it with one of the most human and beautiful interactions you are likely to see on stage for some time. Opened October 22nd; runs through November 18th at the Claire Tow Theatre at Lincoln Center Theater. All tickets $30.