Many plays have their hearts in the right place, which is indisputably positive. Take Jaclyn Backhaus’ India Pale Ale, which has at its center a Punjabi family living in small town Raymond, Wisconsin and trying simultaneously to maintain ties to their country of origin while fitting into their adopted surroundings.
At a time when no less than the United States president doggedly foments discrimination towards legal and illegal immigrants, the Batra clan, which does encounter discrimination in a tragic way, represents not only its own background but also serves as a stand-in for all other alien populations residing within national borders.
The Batras hope to build a bridge between and among cultures—the word “bridge” is prominently invoked—and, needless to say, that’s a highly commendable goal. No one watching India Pale Ale would be likely to argue with it but instead would want very much to welcome, for instance, the regional hallmarks newly introduced—say, for Indian influences, the spicy samosas prepared at the traditional langar harvest celebration. Who wouldn’t want to eat those goodies right up?
Often, however, good attentions don’t constitute drama. That’s the case with Backhaus’ often lively, certainly sincere but ultimately lightweight play, which is well directed by Will Davis and obviously produced by Manhattan Theatre Club as an antidote to today’s promulgated-from-the-oval-office divisiveness and its too often-homicidal repercussions.
Focal character Basminder Batra (Shazi Raja), calling herself Boz, is upsetting her tightly knit family for which meals are a rejuvenating occasion. She announces that she’s saved the finances to leave Raymond for nearby Madison. The proximity doesn’t strike the others the same way. They view her as abandoning a unit that not only prays together but also regularly breaks into glorious dances together. (Director Davis also does the exultant choreography.)
Boz’s intention—in a time when craft beers represent another nation-wide trend—is to open a Madison bar where she’ll promote the India Pale Ale of the title. She’s hip to the particular hops necessarily to turn out the tasty brew.
And in the second first-act scene, she’s discovered presiding over her establishment, chatting up her only customer, agreeable Tim (Nate Miller). Is the clientele limited because it’s August, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison students haven’t return for the fall semester?
Anyway, she’s happily behind the bar while the Batra patriarch Sunny (Alok Tewari) presides over his Sikh charges (Angel Desai, Purva Bedi, Sophia Mahmud) at the gurdwara (temple) refectory. That’s also where volatile son Iggy (Sathya Sridharan) spends time courting—temporarily unsuccessfully—Lovi (Lipica Shah) and friend Mishal (Nik Sadhnani) hangs amiably around.
Initially, the only interruption to the jovial gurdwara times and Boz’s tavern conviviality is the second act opening, during which the cast gets into extremely colorful and capacious pirate outfits (Arnulfo Maldonado is the costumer) to appear as mythical forerunner Brownbeard and crew. They’re meant to be accounting for much of pioneering DNA in Punjabi descendants.
Once Backhaus ends that energetic digression, she’s back with the Batras and the unfortunate incident that forces Boz to return home. No spoilers will be dropped about that here. But it’s fair to note that, despite the rather sizable complication, the play slides to a likable and conciliatory but not sufficiently deep, conclusion.
There’s no arguing with the cast’s performances or Davis’ overseeing them. Neil Patel’s set, featuring a glittering upstage panel (curtain?) is serviceable, as are Ben Stanton’s lighting and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound and original music.
Still, with things as they currently are across this troubled land, it’s impossible to ignore the optimism Backhaus expresses as her characters line up at fadeout. Spectators will surely share at least a modicum of her celebratory langar attitude.
India Pale Ale opened October 23, 2018, at NY City Center Stage I and runs to November 18: Tickets and information: manhattantheatreclub.com
CORRECTION, November 14: The original version of this review contained language referring to the ethnicity of a member of the creative team. This was not intended as an attack or slur, but was nevertheless inappropriate and deleted soon after publication.