How often do New York theatergoers get a chance to see a premier work from a major Indian dramatist, staged with the collaboration of the writer himself? Almost never. Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder was written and first performed in 1974 and hardly qualifies as a new play. Thirty years after setting Indian censors aflame, it makes its New York debut in a spare, lucid, and altogether thrilling production from the Play Company. At a time when the airheaded confection Bombay Dreams passes for subcontinental theater, Sakharam Binder not only feels vital, but painfully necessary.
The play’s eponymous protagonist is many things: “I’m a rascal, a womanizer, a pauper,” he says with effulgent pride. The truth, we learn by the end, is a whole lot bleaker. Played to smug perfection by Bernard White, Sakharam is a fortyish bookbinder who offers lodging to cast-off women in exchange for housekeeping favors and the occasional fuck. The drama focuses on two of his concubines—the introverted and ultra-religious Laxmi (Anna George) and the arrogant and slutty Champa (Sarita Choudhury). Their sequential stories are told in highly diagrammatic fashion—Laxmi brings out the Fagin-ish slave master in Sakharam while the insatiable Champa reduces him to a lovelorn puppy.
The two tales eventually come together in the final third of the piece, when Laxmi returns from exile and befriends Champa, much to Sakharam’s bewilderment. A sort of ménage à trois ensues, but Tendulkar is foremost interested in exploring the psychological power struggle that consumes his three characters. The conclusion is a shocker—think Macbeth, and also much of ancient Greek tragedy. Sakharam’s macho bluster is finally deflated, and for a moment we pity him. Almost. Tendulkar’s flawed hero is more than just a luggish misogynist: He’s profoundly (and disgustingly) human—a model of insecure masculinity to rival Stanley Kowalski.