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New York City Theater

"Rafta, Rafta . . ."
Acorn Theater

On the surface, the charming, touching, funny, and altogether winning "Rafta, Rafta . . . " seems no more than a repositioning and updating of Bill Naughton's 1963 "All in Good Time." The action still takes place in England, but, by substituting Indian characters for the original native Lancashire ones, playwright Ayub Khan-Din adds layers of cultural differences as well as parallels. The result is a rich tapestry touching on questions of integration, assimilation, and tribal loyalties, interlaced with sex, love, jealousy, and the kinds of family rifts common to all.

Especially at a time when questions of immigration are in the forefront, a reminder that we all live and love and suffer and triumph equally is most welcome. As the father says to one of his two sons in both versions, "It's life, son. It might make you laugh at your age, but one day it'll make you bloody cry."

The action revolves around the wedding of Atul Dutt and Vina Patel. At a post-ceremony celebration in the Dutts' overdecorated home, guests gather to drink and joke. But a game of elbow-bending that begins as a frivolous interlude takes on darker overtones when played between Atul and his father, Eeshwar, who says, "I was slowly squeezing the strength from you." Revealed is the browbeating and misunderstanding that characterize their relationship, leading to Atul's inability to consummate the marriage and, later, his father's recounting of what appeared to be an innocent bond with his best friend.

Of course, it doesn't help that the young couple has to live in his parents' house, subject to all sorts of noise and intrusions, from flushing toilets to sudden knocks on the door. Frustrations abound: fights, flirtations, firings, intimations, and difficulties of communicating with one another. Details may have changed in the move from India to England -- Eeshwar received a water buffalo at his wedding; Atul gets a Blackberry -- but the basics remain.

The remarkable cast thankfully knows the line between realism and sniggering farce. Ranjit Chowdhry as Eeshwar is naive, vulnerable, uncomprehending, confused, bullying, and loving -- a fully rounded, memorable performance. Matching him is Sakina Jaffrey as his patient, wise wife, and Manish Dayal as his seething, confused son. Reshma Shetty is lovely and sweet-tempered as Vina, with parents who are the mirror image of her in-laws: a wise mother (Sarita Choudhury) and a doting father (Alok Tewari).

Vividly directed by Scott Elliott, the show boasts a vivacious physical production thanks to Derek McLane's lush set, Jason Lyons' mood-inspiring lights, and Theresa Squire's gorgeous costumes. Although the title translates as "slowly, slowly," and the opening scene does drag, "Rafta, Rafta . . . " is shot through with the laughter and sadness of humanity.

--David Rosenberg
May 8, 2008

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