Jaclyn Backhaus’s perceptive play “India Pale Ale,” a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation effectively directed by Will Davis, introduces us to a Punjabi family in Wisconsin, with members, contrary to what some might think, who have been born there. It is at once educational about Punjabi-Americans, including their culture and heritage, and also a plea for understanding and peaceful relations between people. The plot also includes a harrowing event of the all too frequent kind plaguing our country.
Luminous Shazi Raja gives an impassioned performance as Basminder “Boz” Batra, known as Boz. Approaching 30, she has ideas of breaking loose from the family environment and heading for Madison, Wisconsin, where she wants to use savings to open a bar. It is hardly an idea to win traditional family approval, and she has to defy her father, Sunny (Alok Tewari) and her mother Deepa (Purva Bedi), as well as her hot-tempered younger brother Iggy (Sathya Sridharan).
But off Boz goes, causing a family crisis, with the side effect of the breaking off wedding plans between her brother and his intended. She does open the bar, and makes friends with Tim (Nate Miller), a good-natured guy whom she educates about her background and American-born status. There is a long conversation—overly long, I believe—but nonetheless interesting in establishing their friendship. When her brother arrives with grave news that requires her sudden return home, Boz thrusts keys upon Tim, who agrees to lock up the bar. (We later meet him interacting with the family.)
The emergency has been created by a gunman doing a mass shooting that has claimed the life of Boz’s father and family acquaintances—a racist attack that has decimated the community and altered life for everybody involved.
While the play is best when showing intimately the Batra family members and their lives, the playwright also goes in for fantasy numbers attempting to show the heritage linking to pirate ancestors, notably a pirate known as Brown Beard. The lavishly staged and costumed interludes aboard a pirate ship in the 19th century come across as rather absurd, and while making a point, only hinder structure and realism of the play. At moments the ploy becomes downright silly.
But back to the real, contemporary world, the interplay between visiting Tim and the Batra family as it tries to recover from grieving is amusing and hopeful. There is a noble peace-pleading ending as members of the cast circulate among the audience and pass out gifts of samosas in an inter-cultural gesture symbolizing the play’s message for understanding and against hate and ignorance. At City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed October 26, 2018.