When Navin, an Indian college student, opens his mouth to speak, it's hard to resist laughing at his thick Calcutta accent. Sadly, this is exactly what the American media have primed us for: Indian accent equals stereotype, cheap humor, caricature. But thank goodness for Rajiv Joseph, the bright, young playwright whose magnificent play, Huck & Holden, is enjoying a first-rate world premiere at Cherry Lane Theater's studio space. Joseph's writing has the smarts and sophistication to rip away stereotypes while revealing his characters' raw humanity. With simple storytelling, he deftly constructs Navin's coming-of-age story with comedy, pathos, and a distinct emotional core. This is theater at its finest, and theater that matters.
It'd be easy, of course, to portray Navin as a clichéd fish out of water who stumbles onto the American college scene, discovers drinking and debauchery, and forsakes his straight-laced past. Of course, there are the requisite lost-in-translation moments (Navin asks a friend, "How many times are you making love in your life?"), but lucky for us, Joseph grounds these comic moments in something more meaningful. He gives Navin room to wrestle with his inhibitions, toy with his temptations, and negotiate a new identity in a foreign land.
A dedicated engineering student, Navin (Nick Choksi) goes to the library in search of the book Huck & Holden for his required English class. There is, of course, no such book—Navin has mistaken the paper's topic (the literary protagonists of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye) for a book title. There, he meets Michelle (Cherise Boothe), a voice major with a work-study library job.
The two quickly strike up a friendship, and when Michelle discovers that Navin is still a virgin (saving himself for an arranged marriage back in India), she vows to shatter his polite, polished shell. She invites him to her boyfriend Torry's (LeRoy McClain) fraternity party, and Navin's evolution begins.
Michelle is African-American and a lapsed Catholic, which provides a dynamic foil to Navin's strict Hinduism. Navin is determined to live by the "the rules"—the norms and behaviors that will reward him in his life back in India. But as Michelle shares how she has created her own system of values, the two characters share moments of connection almost poetic in their lyric simplicity. In short, Michelle helps Navin learn how to carve out a life all his own.
The inclusion of two supernatural figures gives this romantic comedy a twist. Like so many college boys before him, Navin begins to idolize Holden Caulfield while reading The Catcher in the Rye, and Holden springs to life in the form of Singh (Arjun Gupta), who was the cool kid in Navin's private school in India. Singh becomes an anti-conscience character, encouraging Navin to take more risks. And near the end of the show, the Hindu goddess Kali (Nilaja Sun) appears as part of Michelle's consciousness (blame it on overexposure to Kama Sutra).
A stellar cast and superior production team bring the script fervently to life. Choksi gives a star-making performance as Navin; he is a compelling, controlled actor, and he contributes a natural grace to a very complex comic and dramatic arc. Boothe gives tremendous heart to Michelle's up-and-down emotions, and she finds a myriad of inflections in the expression "Daaaamn."
Gupta shows smooth confidence as Singh, and McClain's charismatic take on Torry is so infectious you wish he could be onstage more often. And in her fierce, no-holds-barred portrayal of the monstrous goddess Kali, Sun very nearly steals the show.
Director Giovanna Sardelli keeps the action moving at a crisp pace, but she also gives Navin the necessary space and time to think through his actions. The production team proves that mastery lies in the details. Regina Garcia's functional set features rows of rotating bookshelves, literally framing the proceedings in the acquisition of knowledge (or books); Pat Dignan's lighting beautifully captures natural light filtering through a windowpane; Rebecca J. Bernstein's costumes capture both Navin’s finicky taste and the disarming spectacle of Kali; and Bart Fasbender's punchy sound design keeps the energy up during the quick set changes.
Everything in this highly polished production cries out for mention, but at the heart of it all is Joseph's taut, masterful script. Resisting a happy ending, Joseph leaves us on a precipice right alongside Navin, but this uncertainty somehow feels like the happiest possible ending of all. The journey toward self-definition may be messy, but in Huck & Holden it's definitely worth the bumpy ride. And by the end, don't be surprised if you forget about the accent.