All of the most important events of the play take place between the scenes which is a dramatic problem as they must be reported on later but are not dramatized. Backhaus’ heroine is 29-year-old Basminder Batra, known to friends and family as Boz, who wants to leave home and open a bar in the college town of Madison, 90 minutes away. Having recently broken up with her boyfriend Vishal, she is afraid to tell her parents Deepa and Sunny that she has already put a down-payment on her premise.
We never learn whether Vishal has refused to move to Madison or whether it was something else that caused the break up. In any case, Boz’s parents are expecting her to marry and settle down in the Punjabi Raymond community. Unfortunately, we aren’t told enough about Boz to know why she wants to leave. One assumes that she wants to get away from the controlling traditions of her parents, but it could also be that she wants to follow in the footsteps of her ancestor Brownbeard who according to legend was a pirate for the East India Company bringing beer to Essex, England from Calcutta, India, in 1832. However, this is likely to be as fictitious as it is believed to be true.
In the play’s first scene we are at the engagement party for Boz’s younger brother Iggy to his longtime sweetheart Lovi, which Boz’s parents are very pleased about. This is a langar or festive meal that takes place at the gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Without being familiar with the “Author’s Note” in the program, one is at a decided disadvantage due to the many Indian terms that are used. It is here during the celebration that Boz’s parents hear about her defection from the community. The second scene takes place a year later at Boz’s bar where her only customer is Tim, a sweet Caucasian local totally uninformed about Punjabi Indian culture. In this scene, Boz is notified by Vishal of a terrible accident that has fallen upon the Punjabi community that needs her to return home.
At the beginning of the second act we are presented with a dream sequence in which Boz finds herself on the ship of her ancestor Brownbreard when they are caught in a storm. Although presented as a fantasy, it is not clear whether this is entirely historical or the stuff of legend. We last see Boz and her family back at the temple three months later, still dealing with the accident that has beset the entire community. Boz now has the conflict of deciding whether to return to Madison and her own life or staying and helping out her family.
Shazi Raja’s Boz is a complex personality but we are never given enough information to understand what makes her tick. The story of her family is couched in enough Punjabi terms and traditions to make it difficult for an outsider to follow all but the group dynamics. Director Will Davis, who also directed Backhaus’ Men on Boats, is better with the characterizations than he is with the plot development. Purva Bedi as Boz and Iggy’s mother Deepa is a woman whose form of love is always to be cleaning. Alok Tewari (Boz’s father Sunny) who lives up to his name and is always cheerful also doubles as the swashbuckling pirate Brownbeard, so big an influence on Boz.
Sathya Sridharan makes Iggy, Boz’s brother, a lively vigorous young man of 25. As the grandmother Dadi Parminder, Sophia Mahmud seems to carry her age and her wisdom with her at all times. Angel Desai as Deepa’s best friend and cousin Simran is a bubbly and gossipy woman of a certain age, and brings a needed bit of comedy.
The non-members of the Batra family are equally colorful. Lipica Shah as Lovi is a bit of dark horse until she speaks her mind to Iggy in the play’s final scene. Nik Sadhnani’s Vishal is a fun-loving though serious young man; Biz could do much worse. As the only Caucasian character, Nate Miller as Tim, the patron in Boz’s bar, is amusing as a slow-talking, slow-thinking but well-meaning guy.
Neil Patel’s set creates its own problems. Though it may be completely authentic as the Raymond, Wisconsin gurwara it is more than a bit too large for a story with eight family members, as it always looks empty. On the other hand, one does not know where to look as the characters come and go preparing the langar for all the unseen guests before they arrive. The scene on board Brownbeard’s ship is extremely stylized, a shift after the realism of the previous two scenes. Elements that add to the Punjabi atmosphere include the original music and sound by Elisheba Ittoop, the hair, wig and makeup design by Dave Bova, and choreography by Davis for the engagement party which is one of the most exuberant scenes in the play.
Jaclyn Backhaus’ India Pale Ale is a revealing window on a world not usually seen on our stages. Unfortunately, the play often feels like it is written in a private language and that this family story is of things we are not privy to like the son Jol who no one will talk about but we eventually find out that he moved to India where he died young. As a result, the play seems longer than its actual running time. Backhaus may still be too close to her material to have had an objectivity to shape her story into a satisfying whole. It would be accurate to say that the play is less than the sum of its parts, a fascinating milieu but a less than coherent drama.
India Pale Ale (through November 18, 2018)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.indiapalealeplay.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission