In the course of its 35-year lifespan, Pan Asian Rep has produced more than a few domestic dramas about the struggles of Asian immigrants to maintain their cultural identity in America. But “Rangoon,” an ambitious but flawed play by Mayank Keshaviah, may be the first to focus on the conflicted allegiances of an Indian family whose stubbornly traditional patriarch is trying to live the American Dream without developing the proper survival skills. Since the entire weight of the play hangs on his character, a better busker might have earned more sympathy for the poor guy.
As the manager of a 7-Eleven in the rural South, Dhiraj Patel (Faizul Khan) is the sort of person who isn’t much noticed, or afforded much respect when he is. But he’s putting a smart daughter (Anita Sabherwal) through college and working killer hours to send off his son (Adeel Ahmed), a high school jock who doesn’t much look like college material.
Dhiraj’s wife (a lovely warm perf from Sunita S. Mukhi) understands and stands by her man, showing her love by cooking him Indian comfort food. But his Americanized children, heartless little brutes that they are, complain about daddy’s long work hours, mock his old-fashioned values and accuse him of being obsessed with making money. And his cousin (James Rana, playing it cool), who owns a string of 7-Eleven franchises, refuses to take him into the business because of his rude manners and black temper, neither of which is much in evidence here.
Because he takes no active role in the unfortunate events that eventually unman him, Dhiraj can’t be called tragic.
The only time this pivotal figure shows some character is not when he’s trying to assert his patriarchal will, but when he’s acting out his fantasies: asking guidance from the ghost of his grandfather (played with authority by Krishen Mehta), who neglected his own family to make (and lose) a fortune in Burma. Or daydreaming about the traditional Indian family of a loving wife and respectful children that he wished he had. Victor En Yu Tan’s fanciful lighting and Carol A. Pelletier’s vibrant costumes give these scenes the needed color missing from Kaori Akazawa’s dull set.
In the end, “Rangoon” disappoints because it doesn’t deliver the clash between cultures promised by the scribe. Dhiraj’s chronic complaining, pig-headed stubbornness, patriarchal rigidity and obsession with longstanding grievances have nothing to do with any conflict between American and Indian values. These are character flaws that escape ethnic definition and make monsters out of fathers from every generation and across the world.