theater reviews

Theater Reviews: The Joys and Troubles of the Teaching Play

From Plot Points in Our Sexual Development, at the Claire Tow. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Plot Points in Our Sexual Development and India Pale Ale are teaching plays. They’d like us to leave the theater broader-minded than when we entered it, our ears and hearts more open to stories and storytellers that we perhaps haven’t fully or frequently listened to. In Plot Points, Miranda Rose Hall follows the confessions of a couple, a cisgender woman named Cecily and a genderqueer person named Theo, whose relationship has hit a frightening speed bump, and whose histories and desires might or might not be reconcilable. And Jaclyn Backhaus, a playwright of German and Punjabi descent writing about a family of Punjabi Sikh Americans in Wisconsin in India Pale Ale, encourages us in her Playbill author’s note to “get ready for a day … when South Asian stories are presented with the regularity of apple pie or casserole.”

Hall and Backhaus both start from a place of earnestness — from a desire to connect across the footlights, enlarging our sense of shared humanity — but their pedagogies differ dramatically. In the wake of their plays, I found my mind drifting back to my school days — because there are teachers, and there are teachers. There are the smart, sympathetic, no-nonsense educators of the world, who treat us with respect no matter our age, who challenge and support us and deserve NFL-level salaries. And there are the ingratiating, baby-talking, finger-wagging patronizers, the “I already know the answer I’m looking for” types, whose gushy exhortations that we act like big boys and girls only make us want to set our desks on fire, free the class hamsters, and generally lead a revolt against the condescending inanities of adulthood. Under the weirdly sitcom-ish direction of Will Davis, the sagging, cutesy India Pale Ale lands in this second camp, whereas Plot Points — with its effectively simple structure and Margot Bordelon’s measured direction — manages to help us along without talking down to us. Its lesson comes not by injunction but by example.

On the day I saw Hall’s play, news broke of the latest act in the Trump administration’s ongoing carnival of horrors: the efforts by the increasingly ironically named Department of Health and Human Services to establish a legal, fixed definition of gender, annihilating Obama-era protections for transgender people under sex-discrimination laws. The way the Times phrased it, the very idea of being transgender could be “defined out of existence.” It’s a thuggish, dehumanizing, completely on-brand maneuver, and its presence in the room puts Plot Points under a magnifying glass. Hall’s play isn’t long — just under 60 minutes — but the intimate conversations it’s composed of have a vast, supercharged frame. Cecily, who identifies as her birth gender, and Theo, who doesn’t, love each other but are struggling to see each other, and their attempts to navigate the maze of their own formative experiences resonate movingly against the broader context of a government that refuses to see the lived reality of roughly 1.4 million of its citizens.

Like several plays I’ve written about recently, Plot Points turns to candid storytelling, to the vulnerable sharing of personal narrative, as perhaps our most powerful tool in finding our way toward each other. We first encounter Theo (Jax Jackson) and Cecily (Marianne Rendón) on opposite sides of set designer Andrew Boyce’s wood-floored, almost empty stage, seated and facing out. Alone in their own spots of light, they take turns telling stories — the plot points of the title — that begin with childhood and gradually advance through the years, tracking their emergence as sexual beings. The tone is light, generous, seemingly relaxed, and the characters’ reminiscences relatable: They’ve got a blend of the kooky and the scary that feels right and real for the burgeoning of sexual consciousness. Cecily talks about showing her “hoo-hoo” to a jerky boy on the playground in order to win back a cupcake he stole from her, and about playing “Going to Missouri” with her My Size Barbie — a game that involved getting naked (except for the matching pioneer bonnets made for both doll and kid by Cecily’s mother) and then “fucking our brains out.” Theo remembers being a preteen in what was then an undeveloped female body and wearing shorts and no shirt to go swimming with a cousin: “She leaps into my arms,” Theo recalls, because “[she’s] afraid of snakes … and I wade slowly out into the river, and she puts one arm over my chest and one arm around my neck, and my heart is just — my heart is like 100 sizes bigger than it’s ever been before because I feel like a grown-up man.”

Inevitably, the stories get harder, more confusing, more painful. Theo and Cecily move through awakenings, humiliations, and heartbreak — Cecily recounting all the years she’s spent trying to be “happy being a woman who is satisfied by satisfying a man” and Theo explaining the “fiery rage of penis envy” they felt when their college girlfriend went back to her “milquetoast basic” high-school ex. Bordelon builds the tension one recollection at a time, hinting at something strained and unspoken beneath all these shared memories and eventually shifting the actors’ focus from us to each other. “Oh, are we interrupting now?” Cecily snaps at Theo when they speak up during one of her stories, and we realize that we’ve been witnessing a conscious exercise, a serious game the characters have decided to play. They’ve been talking to each other from the start, and even the most casual of their stories has had high stakes: Though Theo and Cecily have been dating for some time, they’ve just had a sexual encounter that’s frightened Cecily enough to make her think the relationship might be doomed. A slightly cracked door at the back of Boyce’s set hints at a bedroom beyond, the place where things just went from wonderful to terribly complicated. “I mean, it has been a pleasure to fall in love with you,” Cecily says, shaking with anxiety. “But I honestly don’t know … What does it matter if you know about my history of, of, embarrassing stories and confusion and failures or my fears or my desires or anything, if it just, if at the end of the day…”

She can’t finish her sentence, but we can. Hall is playing out the kind of terrifying relationship talk every one of us has had — a fight that was never supposed to be a fight, a rabbit hole of back-and-forth with someone we deeply love, where it seems like every attempt to explain, to reach out, to mend an unintentional rift somehow just makes the chasm bigger. And underneath Cecily’s unanswered question lurks another even scarier one: If these lovers can’t find their way back to one another, then is there any chance for people starting on opposite sides of an even wider chasm? Is the idea that stories can guide us through a world of open hostility hopelessly naïve?

In a way it’s a mercy that Plot Points only lasts an hour, because its evocation of this kind of unraveling-sweater, state-of-the-union conversation is excruciatingly on point. I could feel my cortisol rising. But I could also feel the humanity — layered, nervous, yearning — of both of Hall’s characters. Rendón brings out Cecily’s intelligence and her deep, self-undermining fears, and Jackson gives a sensitive, compassionate performance as Theo, a “genderqueer trans person who is not a woman and is not a man, but is kind of a man, who loves lesbian jokes — I mean, WHAT! That is not an option in the Valentine’s display at Walmart!”

I wish it were a truth universally acknowledged, rather than a fact most often awkwardly avoided, that plays with good intentions aren’t always good plays. It’s not fun to criticize a play like India Pale Ale, which so badly wants to be a model of good citizenship and generosity, and falls so dismally theatrically flat. But from its very opening moments, the sketchily drawn story of the Batra family feels confused about everything from tone to intention to narrative focus. At two hours including its intermission, the show is stretched so thin you can see through it. It wanders and hiccups and fails to get any sort of real emotional foothold, then latches onto a tragedy in order to catapult its engineless plot forward. Careering between twee and maudlin, it sometimes seems to admonish us and sometimes desperately attempts to give us the warm fuzzies, and I left its soupy, sanctimonious embrace with something akin to a toothache.

The play follows Basminder “Boz” Batra (Shazi Raja), a young woman from Raymond, Wisconsin, who’s preparing to leave her home and family to follow her dream of opening a bar in Madison. We first see her entering the empty space to the creaking sounds of a ship at sea, backlit, surrounded by haze, and carrying a shovel. She crosses the stage, kneels, then … puts the shovel down. And opens a trapdoor in the floor and starts removing dirt with her hands. She talks to the worms in the dirt in a “Yar, me hearties” pirate voice, telling them, and us, about her big plans, her down payment on the bar, her pirate ancestor called Brownbeard … But I’m still stuck on the shovel. Why carry it out there if you’re not going to use it? Why does it need to sit there, reminding us that you’re not really digging? That shovel is the whole experience of watching India Pale Ale: It wants us to think it’s going deep, but it’s not really digging.

From India Pale Ale, at City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

Things only get worse from the cringey pirate voice onward. Just because Backhaus has given the Batras a forebear who sailed for the East India Company (transporting beer from India to Essex in the early 1800s, thus Boz’s brewing aspirations), it doesn’t make the not-as-cute-as-it-thinks-it-is swashbuckling dialogue any easier to listen to. Brownbeard and his heritage of adventure and “shiver me timbers”-speak are supposed to delight us, and eventually to provide the distressed Boz with a port in a storm, but they’re such hammy, underdeveloped gestures that they come off as affected instead of fun. They feel like a gaudy peg leg that Backhaus has strapped to her play to keep it from being just another sentimental family drama.

But a sentimental family drama is what it is, and one whose characters — despite Backhaus’s solemn program note about how the play “tells the story of my mother and my mother’s mother as much as it tells my own” and “[centers] the humanity of my Punjabi heritage” — come off as cardboard cutouts. I’ve seen several members of India Pale Ale’s cast do fine work before, but here Davis has them overplaying everything, as if they’re Ross and Joey and Phoebe, waiting for their laugh track. Perhaps he’s trying to beef up the text, but the actors’ chuckle hunting only reveals how thin their material is. As Boz’s brother Iggy and her ex Vishal, Sathya Sridharan and Nik Sadhnani have to strut and bounce around, yapping “Bro! Bro? Bro!” and posing like Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg as their “Dick in a Box” duo, sans irony. As Boz’s mom and dad, Deepa and Sunny, Purva Bedi and Alok Tewari get to be stock good parents — smiling but firm, wiser and more flexible than their daughter realizes, but still with their lovable foibles. Lipica Shah has to giggle and take duck-lip selfies as Iggy’s fiancée, Lovi, and Angel Desai winks and gossips and goes all the way over the top as the Batras’s affectionate busybody of a cousin, Simran. There’s also Sophia Mahmud as Grandma Dadi, who’s little more than one of those “I’m speaking in my native language and my son is translating for me but I’m actually just speaking English so that you can laugh at how he’s softening all my gruff older-generation pronouncements” walking gags.

And then there’s Tim, who’s described in the script as “some guy in his late 20s in Madison” who’s “just so white it’s honestly painful.” The game Nate Miller (all the actors are game, bless them) does his best to find something, anything, inside the shell of a character he’s been given, but what can he do when the playwright has already dismissed Tim as a nothing part?

Well, not nothing. Tim’s job, of course, is to say clueless things to Boz like, “So yeah, so how long have you been here?… I mean like how long have you been here?… You seem like you’re from somewhere else… Like, what are you?” It hasn’t taken Boz long to end up settled in Madison, her bar apparently up and running without a hitch. (Thus the appearance in the story of Tim “I’m Here to Create Teaching Moments” McWhiterson — like a certain other white dude recently of note, he likes beer.) Backhaus, who’s been skating along on easy comedy and half-baked family drama, hasn’t been able to find an energy source for her play: Boz’s move away from home generates no real conflict, just some passing angst (Boz is 29 but the character often reads more like 19) and a few more doses of pirate-speak. For all its nudging and winking and posing and dancing and yo-ho-ho-ing, the play is becalmed. So, just before intermission, Backhaus decides to put some wind in the sails by getting deadly serious.

Boz is called back home to Raymond in the wake of a shooting at the Sikh temple her family attends, reminiscent of the gurdwara shooting perpetrated by a white nationalist in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012. Her family hasn’t been spared, and in a long fantasy sequence at the top of Act Two, her father Sunny and the rest of the characters appear in full pirate garb so that Sunny, as Brownbeard, can pass on the mantle of family honor and courage to Boz. The scene is supposed to be poignant and whimsical at the same time, and both notes feel forced and out of tune, neither fierce comedy nor sincere distress. Backhaus seems to want to use the tragedy to raise her play’s stakes — and to get the audience into a somber, chastened state, primed for our lesson about love and tolerance — but she does nothing to make us or her characters truly feel the weight of the deaths that have occurred. When we see the Batras again without beards and tricorns, it’s only a few months later, yet there’s hardly a shift in their dialogue from Act One’s mannered casualness. Yes, Deepa and Iggy both have their moments of explosion (Iggy pushes a whole table’s worth of actual rice and samosas and roti onto the floor in a moment that just made me recoil at the nightly waste of food), but these outbursts seem calculated — the work of a playwright who’s looking for easy ways to demonstrate grief without investigating it too deeply.

Backhaus wants to show us the Batras’ resilience — their loving, charitable fortitude — without ever truly looking at their pain. She drops a bomb into the middle of her play and then dances away from it, more comfortable with sea shanties and sketch-comedy banter than with figuring out how to evoke and manage real loss. And to top it all off, she adds a thick coating of sentiment at the finish: It involves the actors offering samosas to the audience (well, not the whole audience — participatory gestures don’t work in conventional auditoriums unless you really take the time for them, and this play doesn’t) and Tewari breaking into meta-land as he murmurs, “The lights dim, the performers look out …” Backhaus is playing all of the Quirky-But-Meaningful Contemporary Theater cards, and the results are mushy and inert. India Pale Ale might have sprung from a deeply personal place for its playwright, but the play itself feels rudderless and superficial. Like her protagonist, Backhaus takes out her shovel only to leave it unused.

Plot Points in Our Sexual Development is at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater through November 18.

India Pale Ale is at City Center through November 18.

Theater Reviews: The Joys and Troubles of the Teaching Play