In Bollywood cinema, censors have decreed that even kisses are too racy for the screen. Lovers must demonstrate their passion by way of torrid glances, fervent hand-holding, and frequent musical numbers. But Ayub Khan-Din’s Rafta, Rafta . . ., produced by the New Group, is a play, not a film, and it takes place in Boulton, England, not Mumbai, so the young Anglo-Indian couple at its center should be free to canoodle as much as they choose. Yet they find themselves unable to consummate their marriage, and it’s nothing to sing about.
Khan-Din, who first came to New York’s attention with the New Group’s production of East Is East, adapts Bill Naughton’s gentle and vaguely naughty 1963 comedy. He’s maintained the Boulton setting but updated the script to the present day and relocated it to the Indian immigrant community—a population where it doesn’t seem odd that the newlyweds have forgone premarital sex. In order to save money, lissome Vina (Reshma Shetty) and handsome Atul (Manish Dayal) have taken up residence with Atul’s parents and pesky younger brother. The crowded house, thin walls, and familial antagonisms render Atul impotent to perform his marital duties. As his mother-in-law forlornly phrases it: “There’s been no new planting in the Shalimar Gardens.”
Scott Elliott, the New Group’s head, has proved a remarkably uneven director in the past. Sometimes, as with the plays of Mike Leigh and East Is East, he has created thorough and affecting stage worlds, but he’s faltered with tonally trickier pieces like Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon. Happily, Rafta, Rafta . . . requires just the sort of messy domestic milieu at which Elliott excels. In this sensitive production, he, set designer Derek McLane, and costume designer Theresa Squire create a colorful and nicely overstuffed environment.
Though the play begins as a genial comedy about the young couple, it increasingly centers on their parents and shades toward the serious. As Atul’s progenitors, Ranjit Chowdhry and Sakina Jaffrey give less aggressive performances than the actors who originated the roles at London’s National Theatre, but they are nevertheless excellent, as are Alok Tewari and an effectively deglamorized Sarita Choudhury as the in-laws. This parental foursome takes the material of farce and turns it heartbreaking. In the final moments, Atul’s father describes life—in words that also describe the play—as something that at first occasions laughter, “but one day it’ll make you bloody cry.”