Penned by Brit playwright Ash Kotak to “speak primarily to a conservative South Asian audience in the U.K. about homosexuality in an amusing and accessible way,” comedy “Hijra” crosses the Atlantic somewhat uneasily in Andrew Nance’s U.S.-preem NCTC production. The evening’s unevenness is due partly to a script whose crowd-pleasing intentions are sometimes too obvious, even crudely so; partly to performers and pacing still searching for their groove on opening night. Nonetheless, this headlong concoction is likely to travel far on North America’s gay stages.
Hijras are the traditional “third gender” populace of male-born cross-dressers who for ages have been courted for the good luck they purportedly bring (particularly at weddings), and feared for the spells they may cast when crossed. In today’s more Westernized India they no longer command the respect (or financial tribute) they once did, though they’re still held in superstitious awe by some.
Embarrassed by one hijra’s flamboyant presence at a wedding is Nils (Mukund Venkatesh), a closeted young Gotham professional visiting Bombay for the occasion.
His mother, Madhu (Sareeka Malhotra), and Aunty (Maya Capur) are most anxious to see this “eligible bachelor” married at last. Likewise Indira (Sukanya Sarkar), who’s determined to grab daughter Sheila (Rachel Rajput) a rich husband ASAP. Sheila is willing, too, if only to finally get ma off her back.
What none of them has grasped is that Nils is gay — and in fact already has a long-distance lover in Raj (Wesley Cayabyab), the adopted son of old-school “matriarch” Guru Hijra (Ashish Joshi). The latter certainly approves of their coupledom; s/he even urges Raj to join his boyfriend in the U.S., assuming legal immigration can be pulled off. But Nils is so skittish about being “outed” that he lets the women think he’s practically engaged to hapless Sheila.
While comically contrived, the play’s first half is rooted in credible attitudes and behaviors. After (a somewhat unnecessary) intermission, however, it collapses into sitcom silliness and credibility gaps. Raj arrives in New York, only to find he must stay in his drag disguise as out-of-nowhere “bride” Rani to fool not only Madhu (who abruptly moves in) but Nils’ entire gossipy Little India neighborhood. Then Indira and Sheila arrive, incensed that their matchmaking deal has been trumped.
The increasingly shrill, broad tenor makes “Hijra” feel more and more like a dry run for a screenplay in the multiculturalism-made-easy mode of “Monsoon Wedding” (or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” for that matter).
There are clumsy narrative leaps of a kind that cinema’s visual shorthand can bridge more easily than stagecraft, plus inevitable “rousing” dance interludes, which this cast hasn’t yet quite mastered.
Raj’s female impersonation is a ridiculous stock device, not to mention a highly unconvincing one (Cayabyab looks like a man in a wig, period). And there’s no sense to Nils’ continued bellyaching even as everything magically starts to go right.
Of course, “Hijra” just wants to proffer some good-for-you pro-tolerance medicine with a spoonful of sugar (or three). It’s reasonably close to pulling that off, though at first glance the NCTC production seemed to need more rehearsal — or perhaps suffered from slim pickings among local Indian-heritage actors.
Awkward transitions, rushed dialogue rhythms and off-key thesp dynamics should smooth over with time. More of a sticking point is the second-stage playspace itself, which is too cramped for this script’s short, sometimes multiple-location scenes, despite Bruce Walters’ handsome set. Costume designer Prem Lathi’s saris give good eye candy.