Countless Americans populate “Disconnect,” but they are neither seen nor heard. Yet in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s cunning new play, their presence on the end of ceaseless phone calls is both highly pertinent and, in Indhu Rubasingham’s snappy production for the Royal Court, extremely vivid.
“Where is Illinois?” The answer to the question asked by newly demoted supervisor Avinash (nicely nettled and proud Paul Bhattachar-jee) is “the fourth floor.” The windowless, nighttime offices of a call center in Chennai (the city on the southeast coast of Indiaformerly known as Madras) are named after the states whose debt-laden inhabitants are being constantly contacted by Indian workers masquerading as fellow Americans.
Glued to their headsets, leaping in and out of multiple phone conversations, Ross (Nikesh Patel), Vidya (Ayesha Dharker) and Giri (Neet Mohan) switch between sweet-talking — or harassing — clients in hock to a Buffalo-based credit card company and indulging in office one-upmanship. The way they swap the natural voices of their daily banter for flawless U.S. accents down the phone lines creates delicious comedy.
From the tenor of the opening scenes dramatizing the high-pressure hierarchy in a target-driven firm, “Disconnect” feels as if it’s going to be another dog-eat-dog workplace play — “Glengarry Glen Ross” meets “Bells Are Ringing.” But the ideas driving “Disconnect” are wider and more resonant.
Making its political points via character, not speechifying, the play irises in on Ross — real name Roshan. Freewheeling, fast-talking and high-achieving, he’s a collector in his early 20s who is saving for his brother’s visa. But while he initially threatens to be the anarchic good guy, close to a possible author’s mouthpiece, Chandrasekhar is actually laying the groundwork for a convincing character and plot twist.
Ross’ gradual involvement with one of the unseen debtors blurs the boundaries to the point where it contravenes company guidelines, with criminal and psychological repercussions. Too busy playing his own game, Ross is unaware of a much bigger game being played around him. It’s a metaphor for the workings of Western capitalism that, to the drama’s infinite advantage, Chandrasekhar refuses to spell out.
That Ross’ contradictions are so convincing is also due to a dazzlingly assured performance from Patel in his professional debut. Even when the cracks begin to appear, the actor remains at ease, never overstressing the pain that gradually engulfs him.
Within the confines of John Napier’s consciously bald box of an office, the play’s surprising shifts in personal/political perspectives are mirrored by the persistent reconfiguring of the desks. And although director Rubasingham keeps the momentum up, she also grants Dharker’s measured, worried Vidya and Mohan’s more naive Giri the space to register.
Chandrasekhar’s play seizes the theatrical potential of phone calls that allow audiences to imagine the unseen person at the other end of the line. She makes the setup dramatic by exploiting the gap between what the caller hears and what we can see happening.
Sharp-eyed, touching and immediately relevant, “Disconnect” creeps up on its themes with satisfying stealth. It’s a tribute to the playwright’s burgeoning talent that a play about personal identity and non-Western culture in thrall to the sprawl and potential fall of American capitalism works so well in the U.K. Stagings in the U.S. could only add to its impact.