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June 15, 1999


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Tragicomic Combat of Cultures, Sexes

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

As the viewers are ushered into City Center's Stage 1, they walk past the stage split into two sets. On the right is tacky and messy living room with disheveled furniture, gaudy wallpaper, and all sorts of knick-knacks littered around. On the left, the kitchen of a family-run fish and chips restaurant.

As the audience settles into the seats before the play begins, one notes that the shop is occupied by an actor. This is Rahul Khanna (soon to be seen in Deepa Mehta's Earth). For the next 15 minutes, the actor, oblivious of audience's presence, applies batters and then fries fish. (Khanna's stage siblings take turn and cook during rest of the week) The thick smell of fish and the oil permeates through the auditorium.

This is the world that the Khan family will occupy for the next two hours -- the world of a dysfunctional working class family in Salford, England. The Khans include an abusive tyrannical Pakistani father, hopelessly clinging to old values; a meek British mother desperately holding her brood together; and six kids (five sons and a daughter), rebelling against their father while searching for their own identities -- wondering whether they are "Pakistani," "Eurasian," "Anglo Indian" or quite simply "British."

This world was created by actor, playwright (and now screenplay writer) Ayub Khan-Din (Sammy in Stephen Frears's Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) in his 1996 autobiographical play East is East. The play was originally produced for the Royal Court Theater in London. Three years later, it opened last month in New York City. Directed by Scott Elliott and presented by The New Group Theater Company, the play includes remarkable performances by a group of actors (especially the six South Asians who play the Khan kids), most of whom are making their off-Broadway debut here.

The year is 1971. Yahya Khan's West Pakistani army is brutally suppressing the independence movement in East Pakistan, but George Khan (played with an intense emotional range by Edward A Hajj) is convinced that the whole affair is an Indian plot to take over Azad Kashmir. Like the playwright Khan-Din's real-life father, George has his first wife and family living in Azad Kashmir. While he never returns to see them, he is constantly sending money and lavish gifts to Pakistan, much to the dismay of his battered second wife, Ella (Jenny Sterlin).

George's source of income is a fish and chip establishment, where his wife and all his six kids work after school. The kids meanwhile have their own plans.

Saleem (Gregory J Qaiyum) attends an art college, while his parents think he is studying engineering. Tariq (Khanna) has a British girlfriend and in an ultimate insult to his devout Muslim father (but not in his presence), sits and eats bacon with his younger sister, Meenah (Purva Bedi).

Sajit (Rishi Mehta), the youngest has not taken off his parka jacket for over a year and due to his odd behavior is the butt of everyone's jokes (George calls him "bloody mental" and the other Khan kids refer to him as "twitch").

There is Abdul (Dariush Kashani), the oldest at home, who values the family unit and fears being separated from it. Finally, Maneer (Amir Sajadi) the most committed to Islam and his father's way of life ("You good boy," George says in broken English to Maneer. "God will help you... People who no follow the rules of God, he sending bloody hell.")

The Khan's also have seventh child Nazir, who is older than Abdul. Nazir, who never appears on stage, has left the family to become a hairdresser, much to the anguish of his father. ("Why you mention that pucker baster name to me," George says to Ella, "how many time I tell you he dead.") Nazir's banishment from the house is a constant reminder to the other kids that they can never get caught rebelling against their father.

There are two incidents that drive this family to a frenzy: George's decision to circumcise 14-year old Sajit ("You can't have this thing puther, it no belong to you. Not in our religion, see, is very dirty," George says to Sajit about his foreskin), and an attempt to arrange the marriages of Abdul and Tariq to a rich Pakistani businessman's daughters.

Khan-Din's play is written in an edgy, gritty style and the hardness of the characters comes through from the language they speak. Under Elliott's even-handed direction the characters come alive as "real-life" family members. Mattie Ullrich's costume designs (bell bottoms and tight-knit polyester tee-shirts is the dress code for the Khan kids) and Derek McLane's scenic design of heavy couches and garish cushions all add to the sense of a working class English family, frozen in the early-seventies.

While the climax scene takes the appearance of farcical comedy (Khan-Din has been referred to as the "Asian Joe Orton" by the press in Britain), under Elliott's direction the overall play remains a poignant human drama with a universal theme of people and their sense of belonging. For Khan-Din, writing the play was an exercise in coming to terms with his own childhood (Sajit is a self-portrait, he has said) and his relationship with his father.

Elliott's treatment of Khan-Din's characters has us cheering for them despite their frailties and their shortcomings.

Two notes of interest: This production of East is East features several Hindi film songs, including Do Roop Duniya Ke, Aur Do Raste from Raj Khosla's Do Raaste and Hum Aap Ki Ankhon Mein from Guru Dutt's Pyaasa. This is perhaps the first time that Bollywood music has been heard during a theatrical performance in New York City.

Second, along with the traditional Playbill magazine, the audience is also given a brief essay on the history of Pakistan and a glossary of slang from the play. The glossary is written by Stephen Gabis, the dialect coach for the play.

East Is East is in its third week at MTC where it has drawn many full-houses. It is one of the best reviewed of new plays. 'East is East is a terrific play with a big boisterous cast of pitch-perfect actors,' wrote Newsday.

The New York Times said: 'Ayub Khan-Din's warm hearted, affectionate tale of domestic and cultural combat pulls you right into the jumbled, fretful flow of one family's daily life.'

Daily Variety wrote: 'Jazzlike pacing and a vision as darkly comic as any currently around.'

East is East is on Tuesdays to Friday at 8, Saturday 2.30 and Sunday, 2.30 to 7; City Center Stage 1, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues. CityTix, (212) 581-1212

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