An English theatrical warhorse gets an Asian makeover courtesy of the Young Vic revival of Harold Brighouse’s 1916 stalwart “Hobson’s Choice.” And while it might seem audacious to transpose to modern-day, multiracial Salford a decidedly Caucasian slice of late-19th-century English life (the original play is set in the 1880s), it’s a no less bold move to entrust the venture to Richard Jones, the maverick opera and theater director who, one assumes, would have considered the actual “Hobson’s” to be far too bourgeois.
And the result? Considerably more successful in theory than in execution, notwithstanding the full resources lavished on the production — a set from Ultz the width of a tennis court, for starters. While the narrative easily survives the shifts in time period and ethnicity, contempo dramatist Tanika Gupta has surrendered the charm of the original to something coarse and shrill. In any culture’s dramatic terms, this is not exactly choice.
You no doubt know the rudiments of the story, which get altered as necessary this time around. (Both London and New York have hosted this play in recent years.) The paternal termagant Hari Hobson (Paul Bhattacharjee) — in the original, he was Lancashire bootmaker Henry Horatio Hobson — is an Asian emigre to Britain of some 35 years’ standing who hasn’t counted on the emancipation of eldest daughter Durga (Yasmin Wilde), a distinctly Westernized 30-year-old who has her sights set on a fate other than spinsterhood.
While busily marrying off his younger two daughters, Sunita (Vineeta Rishi) and Ruby (Paven Virk), Hobson pere has no time for Durga’s chosen spouse: Ali Mossop (Richard Sumitro), the half-caste Muslim and tailoring ace whom Durga regards less as a husband than as “a business idea in the shape of a man.”
Durga, we quickly learn, has an eye for commerce and thinks she may have struck financial gold with the expert craftsman Ali, no matter how wide-eyed and goofy he may appear. (It would help if the sweet-faced Sumitro didn’t push the part toward mental vacancy.) And if the nuptials are to occur at the expense of her relationship with papa, what price filial devotion, especially toward a widower who regards his daughters as “bloody, nagging witches” and spends most of his time on the warpath. (His late wife, we are told, “had her uses.”)
Jones had a major success at this address several seasons back with Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” and it may simply be that the contours of Brighouse’s play — no matter how reshaped by Gupta — are too conventional for this ever-restless, capricious director.
The production certainly pushes the authenticity hard. Ultz’s set offers a shop interior beguilingly festooned with fabric, alongside the workshop and kitchen where the Hobson family conducts its life and work in private. What’s more, a program insert inviting spectators to attend a wedding reception after the first intermission ultimately leads to the audience crossing the road to a separate venue in order to witness, standing, the ceremony itself. A nice idea, the event is all but rendered null and void by so echo-prone an acoustic that one can’t make out most of it. (Highly voluble: an enraged Hobson’s exit from the gathering with a familial venom that puts one in mind of Mama Rose.)
After a while, however, one must confront the feeling that the evening’s accoutrements are its raison d’etre at the expense of the sweeter, more rumbustious northern English version of “King Lear” that “Hobson’s Choice” often aspires to be. Bhattacharjee has done fine work locally in plays such as “Indian Ink,” but, even padded and in make-up, he is far too young to play “a bad-tempered, stubborn old bastard,” and there’s insufficient pathos to be had from his reckoning with a fondness for booze that has taken him within six months of the grave.
In Hobson’s nearly bellicose fondness for the British middle-class lies scope for a play all its own (deeply Asian in some of his attitudes, Hobson at the same time boasts of standing for the twin English virtues of “common sense and sincerity”), but Bhattacharjee has to push too hard to bring Hobson’s conflicts into focus. Playing the daughter who incurs his wrath, Wilde is noisy without ever being terribly engaging, though that much could be attributed less to the actress than to scribe Gupta’s aggressive characterization of the role as a scheming arriviste.
The most successful sequence is a delicious bit of physical business that won’t surprise those who remember Tommy Tune’s way of isolating (and thereby animating) dancers’ feet on Broadway all those years ago in “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.” Without giving too much away (“Hobson’s Choice” tours after its extended stand at the Young Vic), let me leave it at this: When was the last time you saw a show in which a big toe brought down the house?