Things are looking up for both the New Group and Manhattan Theater Club, whose humdrum seasons have simultaneously come to an end with their joint presentation of Ayub Khan-Din’s, “East Is East.” The play, a brutal, comic expose of an Anglo-Pakistani family living in England in the early 1970s, received a fair amount of favorable notice during its run at London’s Royal Court three years ago. New Group founding artistic director Scott Elliott, helming the New York premiere in his signature urban-realist style, transforms one-half of the staid City Center stage into an overcrowded immigrant apartment, the other half into a greasy-smelling fish-and-chips take-out restaurant. Though some may balk at the mercilessly gritty detail, the production intensely captures the savage humor and strife inherent in the playwright’s deeply intimate portrait of assimilation.
George Khan (Edward A. Hajj), a bullying if well-intentioned patriarch, demands that his family uphold the strictest of Moslem traditions. Despite the fact that he married a Brit shortly after he left Pakistan for Salford, England, he’s constantly haranguing his children about the dangers of Western culture.
When not worrying about the Chippy — his labor-intensive fast-food restaurant — his mind is invariably focused on the old country and, more specifically, the never-ending “holy war” against India.
His wife, Ella (Jenny Sterlin), a weary-looking chain-smoker with an incessant bray of a laugh, is all that stands between her husband’s bruising household tyranny and her kids. After working long shifts at the take-out restaurant, her main source of relaxation is bumming cigarettes off her sister Annie (a tartly humorous Christine Child), who likes to pop in after her job at the mortician’s to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
The couple’s eldest son, who never appears in the play, apparently ran away from home to avoid an arranged Moslem marriage. His absence haunts his six remaining siblings, who spend their days after school working for their father, whose wrath has earned him the nickname Ghengis.
Abdul (Dariush Kashani), the hard-working son who doesn’t like making waves, and Tariq (Rahul Khanna), the hyperactive Romeo, are alarmed to learn that Pakistani wives have been chosen for them as well. Though the two conspire to escape their father’s plan, it’s doubtful they’ll have the will — never mind the heart — for such a fierce psychological battle.
Saleem (sensitively played by Gregory J. Qaiyum), an ambitious art school student, seems particularly threatened by the prospect of his brothers’ fate. The only rewards he receives for courageously standing up to his father, however , are several blows to the stomach.
Meanwhile, his sister Meenah (Purva Bedi) copes with the increasing domestic tumult by relentlessly teasing her brothers about their sordid obsession with girls.
Sajit (Rishi Mehta) is both the baby in the family and the most visibly traumatized. Not only does he refuse to take off his filthy parka even while indoors, but he spends much of his day hiding out in the coal shed.
Compounding his anxiety is the fact that his father is on a mission to have him circumcised — a religious custom his mother halfheartedly swears she asked the doctor to perform years ago.
It’s only when Sajit sees his father weeping over the lack of tradition that he consents to have the distressing operation. But not even this sacrificing gesture can forestall the inevitable family showdown, which culminates in a farcical scene involving the sneeringly proud father of the two betrothed Pakistani daughters, a suddenly defiant Ella and Saleem’s art school project — a graphic sculpture of a woman’s private parts aptly titled “Female Exploitation.”
The final moments, though affecting, seem slightly unearned, depending, as they do, too much on Abdul, a character who only first appears halfway into the play, and whose individual journey is never adequately developed or clarified.
While Abdul’s soothing of his distraught brother Sajit offers a sign that the days of their father’s unchecked tyranny are over, it fails as a coda to put the swirling constellation of events into satisfying focus.
Still, “East Is East” has a dramatic truthfulness and flair rarely seen in the work of an established playwright, never mind a first-timer like Khan-Din, who’s traded in his laggard acting career for a more promising one in writing.
Elliott’s production has a wholeness and vigor one has come to expect from his direction, which features distinguished ensemble acting, jazz-like pacing and a vision as darkly comic as any around.
The set, designed by Derek McLane, represents realism at its most densely literal. The point, however, is not merely photographic verisimilitude, but the cramped, unaesthetic feeling driving the characters to such inner extremes.
Most notable in the generally fine cast are Sterlin, as the beleaguered mother; Khanna, as the son who’s a stud and doesn’t want to be tied down in his prime; and Hajj, as the father whose misguided concern for his family’s future lends their collective comic struggle its inevitable sense of loss.