The second-play syndrome is sadly borne out in “Last Dance at Dum Dum,” Ayub Khan-Din’s first play since his wonderful “East Is East,” and as dispiriting an example of sophomore slump as I can recall. An invented scenario set in 1981 Calcutta, the play seems to occupy a time and place far more distant than the 1970 Salford that the same writer semi-autobiographically brought to the Royal Court stage in his playwriting debut almost three years ago. That Khan-Din is an actor-turned-writer likely to stay the course is clear from the buoyant film of “East Is East,” which Miramax will release domestically later this year. By then , this current play will have faded from view and with it a production that honors no one: “Dum Dum” occupies the theater next door to “The Mousetrap,” and in some ways resembles an antique theatrical cousin to it.
The mystery this time around is the disappearance of the energy and affection that fueled “East Is East,” rather as if — in departing from his own past — Khan-Din had also lost his narrative verve. From our first glimpse of Tim Hatley’s drearily presentational set, “Dum Dum” substitutes hokiness and contrivance for the earlier play’s heart, while Stuart Burge’s direction plays into and not against the play’s dramatic lapses. A sharper staging might go some distance toward disguising the old-fashioned flavor of the text, but the best response of all to the evening is simply to anticipate this writer’s next rather than dwell on what’s absent from the here and now.
“Dum Dum” shares with “East Is East” a fascinating interest in cultural displacement, as seen here in the trials of an aging Anglo-Indian community in the Dum Dum district of Calcutta at a time when Hindu nationalism and militancy are making themselves felt quite literally next door. The peeling colonial bungalow where the play is set houses a community on the verge of extinction, both individually (one character has a brain tumor, allowing a curtain demise accompanied by a ludicrous final line) and metaphorically, with the compound’s motley inhabitants fiddling — well, dancing — while Calcutta really does burn.
As conceived, the characters are either self-conscious eccentrics or merely ciphers, and several of them look as if their best scenes have been edited out, Nicholas Le Prevost’s Bertie chief among them. That leaves the stricken Muriel Marsh (Madhur Jaffrey), Bertie’s wife, making self-evident announcements along the lines of, “This is India in the ’80s,” while the house superintendent Daphne (Avril Elgar) intones, “It’s just one thing after another.”
Comic relief is supplied mostly by Violet (Sheila Burrell, inflecting her lines with a zest Maggie Smith might recognize), with a newly arrived Englishwoman, Lydia Buller-Hughes (Diana Fairfax at her most gracious), on hand to act as resident nurse and (often muffled) voice of pragmatism.
It’s typical of the play’s shorthand approach to character that Lydia’s relationship to her native England is encapsulated in an unconvincing swipe at Mrs. Thatcher, even as the houseboy Elliot (Paul Bazely), by contrast, has to bear more than his fair share of the ultimately AWOL plot. (Like most of the people in the play, Elliot’s past sounds far more vivid than what we actually see on stage.)
Khan-Din’s eye for detail remains acute — in an overdue return to the London theater, Jaffrey is at her least stagy recalling how Muriel’s mother used to brush her elbows with bleach — but the larger brushstrokes are a blur. Is the play requiem (as the title suggests) or tribute to a tribe under siege? The play never lets on, beyond announcing the obvious (“that was then, and this is now,” and so on) and leaving its faux-Chekhovian impulses flailing in the summer heat.