If the best theater takes us to a world we do not know, then Ayub Khan-Din’s Rafta, Rafta... succeeds brilliantly. It is a study of two families, the Dutts and the Patels, both immigrants from India to Britain, and so assimilated that the younger generation speaks with cockney accents. That generation includes Atul Dutt and Vina Patel, whose wedding is being celebrated as the play opens. But because of misunderstandings, immature pranks, and impulsive moments that accumulate to a tipping point, the wedding night hits a major snag. The conflicts and crises in Rafta, Rafta… are generational, social, and sexual, and they are both universally recognizable and particular to the characters. Eeshwar Dutt (Ranjit Chowdhry) arrived in England poor and made his way through life as a factory worker. His son Atul (a slightly baby-faced but handsome Manish Dayal) is a movie projectionist, but he has ambitions, and Eeshwar cannot understand why Atul should expect more from life. “I worked in the factory all my life!” he exclaims, and one senses that he needs validation for his choices by having his son follow in his footsteps. But Atul sees opportunities in the world, and he wants the freedom to seize them.
During the post-wedding party at the Dutts’ home, Eeshwar gets drunk, belittles his son, and humiliates him into an arm-wrestling match that Atul loses. Atul’s younger brother Jai (Satya Babha) and a couple friends sabotage the marriage bed so that it collapses, and, before the night is over, the mood for consummation between optimistic Atul and his devoted Vina (Reshma Shetty) has been destroyed. In Judd Apatow’s hands, say, this crisis could easily be a smutty sex comedy about getting laid, but director Scott Elliott knows this story is far subtler. Shetty and Dayal communicate a love so certain between their likable characters that the rift that grows between them raises the stakes beyond those of any sitcom. It flirts with pain and the human condition, and is the richer for it.
Atul and Vina try to hide the problem but can’t, and pretty soon a forlorn Vina confides the situation to her mother, Lata (Sarita Choudhury). The crisis then exposes the secrets and the fault lines in the parents’ marriages, as Khan-Din skillfully strips away the facades of the Dutts’ and Patels’ unions. Lopa Dutt, played with loving wisdom and forbearance by Sakina Jaffrey, secretly drove away her husband’s best friend, Brijesh, but with good reason: Eeshwar was so attached to Brijesh that the latter accompanied them on their honeymoon. It was a deeper relationship that stood in the way of her own, and it had to end. “With a woman the home comes first,” she says, “not friendship.” She’s not about to let anything come between her son and his new bride, not even Eeshwar.
Lata Patel, meanwhile, has resented her daughter’s closeness to father Laxman (Alok Tewari), and got back at her husband in a Gift of the Magi sort of twist by persuading a young Vina to cut off her long, plaited hair, which Laxman loved. Laxman recognized it was an attack on him, and there has been no physical affection between the Patels since. Vina has resented her mother for the matrimonial chill.
Throughout, Khan-Din (who has based the play on another, called All in Good Time, by Bill Naughton) nimbly shows us a world in which the simple, silly mistakes of ordinary people are compounded through a lack of communication into formidable barriers to happiness. There are minor flaws—a running joke at the end is so overworked it gasps to the finish line—but on the whole <Rafta, Rafta… is a pleasure. (The title is the beginning of an Indian love poem that begins “Slowly, slowly….)
The New Group has mounted the production with great care. It requires a two-level set showing four rooms, and Derek McLane has obliged with a sumptuously colorful and detailed middle-class home for the Dutts. Theresa Squire’s costumes shimmer with color, jewels, spangles, and embroidery.
Elliott’s fine cast has found the emotional truth of the characters, although several still needed to work on technique at a press preview. Occasionally the accented voices became garbled, or they dropped below audibility in a fairly intimate theater. No doubt those problems will be worked out so that this fine play will look and sound even better.