THE INDIANS ARE COMING TO DINNER
Imagine what might happen if you crossed a screwball comedy clan like the one George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart created in You Can’t Take It With You with the Greekly tragic family Arthur Miller wrote about in Death Of A Salesman. What you’d end up with would doubtless be something quite like Jennifer W. Rowland’s highly original and thoroughly entertaining tragicomedy The Indians Are Coming To Dinner, now getting its World Premiere at Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre.
We first meet family patriarch Harold Blackburn (Michael Rothhaar) in full Maharajah regalia as he proudly announces to us the imminent arrival chez the Blackburns of his Indian friend Anil Desai (Kevin Vavasseur) and accompanying family members for the (guess who’s coming to) dinner we’ve come to enjoy. The year is 1984, and after thirty-four years of running a business he doesn’t particularly care for, Harold has learned that recently reelected President Reagan will soon be needing a new ambassador to India, a country still reeling from the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Our host is hoping that a tasty vegetarian curry dinner will curry sufficient favor with the influential Anil for the overseas post Harold has long dreamed of to become a reality. All Harold needs now is some cooperation from his family—a feat that’s easier hoped for than realized.
Wife Lynn (Sara Newman) is the ditzy sort—the kind played by Billie Burke in Topper and Father Of The Bride—who insists on letting the phone keep ringing because this newfangled contraption called the Answering Machine will pick up for her if she just waits long enough. As further evidence of her ditz, Lynn cares not a whit that the chick peas needed for tonight’s main course must be soaked a full forty-eight hours. After all, what’s the difference between two days in water and a quick rinse? As for appetizers, well there’s certainly nothing wrong with sushi, since everyone knows that Indian vegetarians eat raw fish, right?
Conveniently for Harold, his eighteen-year-old college student daughter Alexandra (Thea Rubley) has shown up unexpectedly on the family doorstep, a visit her father assumes is to help him make a good impression on his Indian guests, though in reality it is because tonight is the final round of Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition and Alexandra is one of ten gifted finalists.
At least fourteen-year-old Christopher (Justin Preston) doesn’t have other plans for the evening, though the frisky teen would probably rather spend it smoking pot in his upstairs bedroom than entertaining Indians.
Completing the Blackburn household is Chinese houseboy Woo (Peter Chen), whose comic butchering of the English language is thrown in for laughs, though not perhaps of the most culturally sensitive sort.
We soon learn that despite a whole lot of talking going on in the Rowland household, there’s not a whole lot of communication between family members, as for example when Sara plows blithely ahead with her dinner preparations regardless of admonitions about chick peas and sushi to hilarious effect. At other times, as when Harold’s hopes and dreams blind him to just how important tonight’s once-in-a-lifetime competition is to Alexandra, the results have considerable dramatic payoff.
That playwright Rowland somehow manages to juggle two very different genres and make The Indians Are Coming To Dinner’s gradual darkening seem an entirely logical outcome of its initial lightheartedness is a tribute to her writing, to Julia Fletcher’s intelligent direction, and to an all-around splendid cast.
Newman is delightfully droll as madcap matriarch Lynn, beneath whose seemingly bird-sized brain lies considerable heart and emotional smarts. Preston, whose work as a 16-year-old English schoolboy in PRT’s The Browning Version won him an Outstanding Featured Actor Scenie, demonstrates versatility and spunk in a role which gives him his very own “Biff moment” opposite stage vet Rothhaar, with whom the talented young performer more than holds his own. Recent USC grad Rubley’s luminous performance as Alexandra reveals a talent to be reckoned with (and a soprano that comes out of left field and dazzles). Vavasseur and Rikin Vasani do subtly nuanced work as Anil and his son Deepok, while Chen gives Woo dignity despite the indignity of having to play a racial/linguistic stereotype for laughs.
Finally, topping them all with a performance of fire and depth is the absolutely sensational Rothhaar, who starts out a more educated, successful version of Ralph Kramden and ends up first cousin to Willy Loman. Even if The Indians Are Coming To Dinner weren’t the intelligent, amusing, crowd-pleaser it is, it would be worth seeing simply to watch Rothhaar originate a role that every patriarchal character actor across the country will be dying to play.
Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz manages miraculously to squeeze the two-story Blackburn home (living room, dining room, study, and three upstairs bedrooms) onto the relatively small PRT stage. Leigh Allen lights Buderwitz’s detailed work with her accustomed finesse. Audrey Eisner’s costumes are an all-around splendid bunch, from Harold’s Maharajah garb to Lynn’s shoulder-padded ‘80s wear to Alexandra’s black-sequined opera recital gown. Keith Stevenson’s imaginatively varied sound design features Peter Erskine’s lively original compositions, bits of Rigoletto, and assorted effects.
The Indians Are Coming To Dinner is produced by Sara Newman-Martins and Greg Paul. Vitor Martins and John Dittrick are associate producers and Marilyn Fox executive producers. Angela Fong is stage manager.
A string of positive reviews and the support of loyal season ticket holders are likely to guarantee The Indians Are Coming To Dinner a lengthy, successful Westside run. With a few tweaks, Rowland’s highly original look at one American family’s life in the ‘80s ought to have a long regional theater life, though future productions will have a hard time topping the one now onstage at Pacific Resident Theatre.
Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice, Through March 25. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 310 822-8392.
March 4, 2012