While technically there is no public obscenity in this play, the content offers a complex, edgy, and, at times, risqué look at modern Indian culture as framed through the literal and metaphorical lens of a PhD student and his cinematographer boyfriend. Playwright Shayok Misha Chowdhury manages to present a sort of hyper-naturalistic docudrama that flirts with a latent, soap opera-esque sensibility, ultimately giving audiences an unapologetically raw look at an India and the Indian family subsumed within that we likely never knew existed.
…the play reveals itself through pleasantly eye-opening and deeply nuanced episodes that leave you wanting more…Chowdhury is a true theatrical talent…
Choton (a reliably understated turn by Abrar Haque) is working on a research project, the nature of which is at best only vaguely defined, much as the relationship that Choton has with his boyfriend Raheem (a highly commendable performance by Jakeem Dante Powell). It is by virtue of all this vagueness that Chowdhury, who also directs, compels audiences to pay close attention—perhaps closer than a play normally demands—long enough to see an ironically distinctive cultural turning happening in Kolkata. Juxtaposition cleverly abounds, as it is in the many vague spaces of this production that Chowdhury brings us the richly defined inner life of a family harboring at least a couple of pretty juicy secrets.
Space and silence really do come to characterize a number of scenes. Much of Act One centers on a conversation between Choton and Raheem as they are preparing to go to bed. The stage is dark save for a dim bathroom light providing an intriguing “nightlight effect.” You are forced to strain to see and inevitably, absorb every word that you can in the absence of well-lit visuals. It is quite an effective staging strategy in this instance, though I wonder how many plays could actually pull this off. In the vein of Annie Baker, Chowdhury, too, believes in the heavy-handed usage of pauses and wordless actions. When done correctly, such pauses and silences can pack a punch and they do so here.
While there is no real driving force of any sort of story per se, there are the colorful threads of different lives all finding their footing and coming together whether they want to or not. For instance, the family stumbles upon some fairly intimate portraits of Choton’s deceased grandfather. Each grapples with the fallout of these images in their own way. This is the case with Pishimoni (the oh-so energetic Gargi Mukherjee), the ever-dutiful daughter of the dead patriarch, when that fallout proves devastating. In another plot line, Pishe, Choton’s uncle (played by a devilishly lovable Debashis Roy Chowdhury) who’s developed an addiction to online billiards, discovers that the internet can be the ultimate escapist answer to the unpleasantness of dreams (and potential) unfulfilled.
As playwright and director, Chowdhury does seem to be aided by a sleight-of-hand kind of magic here in making all of the characters and narrative arcs work together on stage. The set certainly helps in this respect. Also quite naturalistic, scenic designer Peiyi Wong’s perfectly done rendition of a Kolkata home offers a clever narrative of compartmentalization by virtue of the set’s many doors and windows—some into which we can peek (as with Pishe’s computer niche), others not so much. The set certainly underlines this idea of separate lives forced into common spaces. Johnny Moreno’s video projections offer brilliantly executed moments during which the exterior world can enter the realm of this otherwise tightly conceived space. Barbara Samuels’ lighting design brings everything together in wonderfully unexpected ways.
Coming in at just under three hours, the play reveals itself through pleasantly eye-opening and deeply nuanced episodes that leave you wanting more—yes, even after that long of a show. After seeing this play, I have to concur that Chowdhury is a true theatrical talent who is going to have a significant impact on what theatre should look like today.
Running Time: Two hours and 55 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Includes profanity and sexual content. The production also includes theatrical oral sex and masturbation as well as theatrical smoke.
“Public Obscenities,” a Soho Rep and NAATCO National Partnership Project production, runs through December 23, 2023 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.