The rhythms in “Rafta, Rafta…” are determinedly unusual. Large sections of this domestic comedy seem actionless, with two Indian families simply chatting, playing cards or toasting the marriage that brought their clans together. Other scenes swing from humor to anger in an instant, or suggest a menace that never quite materializes. But despite initial appearances, scribe Ayub Khan-Din and director Scott Elliott are in control, guiding disparate energies toward an affecting, insightful conclusion.
The play, which bows in New Group’s Off Broadway production after a hit 2007 run at Britain’s National Theater and U.K. touring dates, is ultimately structured to suggest real life, where straightforward stories get sidetracked by weekend plans and daily chores.
It’s a nice metaphor that the sprawling plot diverts our attention from the two central characters. Like the narrative, both Eeshwar (Ranjit Chowdhry) and his son Atul (Manish Dayal) are in arrested development. Though the former is retired, he’s desperate to be 19, dancing wildly at his son’s wedding, reminiscing about his adventures with his best friend, and, in an unsettling moment, besting Atul in an arm-wrestling match in front of the boy’s new bride.
We learn that his son let him win, but that’s part of Atul’s problem: Even married, he lives at home — the play is set in his family’s house in Manchester, England — and he immaturely worries that people make fun of him. His younger brother Jai (Satya Bhabha) is independent and aggressively sexual, but Atul clings to the safety of childhood. Thus he can’t have sex with his wife Vina (Reshma Shetty), and his impotence becomes the focus of the play.
What might have been a tired gag about sexual performance, however, becomes a window into social dynamics. Khan-Din mines the problem for a variety of scenes, including slapstick comedy, tearful confessional and violent confrontation. Each character’s relationship to sex reveals something crucial, allowing Khan-Din to critique Indian and European mores.
Elliott, who also directed Khan-Din’s “East Is East” in 1999, navigates tonal changes with effective pockets of silence. After Atul’s mother Lopa (Sakina Jaffrey) frantically conspires to get Atul and Vina alone in the house, the production takes a deep breath. Shetty comes downstairs to make herself attractive, and as she fusses with her hair and clothes, we see how uncertain she is. Transitional moments like these create delicious texture.
Everyone in the 10-person cast makes an impression, handling drama and silliness with equal finesse. Chowdhry’s perf sets the bar, particularly as Eeshwar realizes how his childishness has wounded his son. At first, he expresses his guilt with barely perceptible gestures — a quick touch of Atul’s arm, a slight slouch in his chair — that befit a man rarely asked to be vulnerable. Thesp lets us track the character’s growth by becoming more and more expressive.
And in a play so focused on men, it’s a treat to see the women get fully developed. Khan-Din even gives a minor character like Molly (Alison Wright), the wife of Atul’s boss, a clear function. In one funny bit — expertly played by Wright — she explodes with indignance over rumors about Atul. Since she enters after a fight, she’s a palate-cleansing dose of humor.
Derek McLane’s spacious, two-level set assists this kind of payoff. For instance, when Atul and Vina kiss in his bedroom, we can tingle with anticipation as we watch Eeshwar shuffle across the house to go knock on his son’s door. Like the rest of the production, these moments are artfully designed to feel incredibly real.