REVIEW: Love N Stuff (Prayas)

Review by Nathan Joe

Written by Tanika Gupta

[Overstuffed]

Despite sharing a similarly large cast, Prayas Theatre have done a 180 for their latest show, going from the epic novelistic scale of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance to the more personal marital comedy of Tanika Gupta’s Love N Stuff. The play charts the tumultuous relationship between middle aged Indian couple Bindi (Sudeepta Vyas) and Mansoor (Mustaq Missouri). When Mansoor decides to return to India, Bindi follows in pursuit to the airport, hoping to change his mind, along with the help of family friends and convenient flight delays. Originally set in Stratford, the play’s references have also been seamlessly tweaked for Auckland audiences.

The premise plays out like an extended sitcom episode, with husband and wife trading insults and bickering, interrupted by numerous scenes with various extras. As comedic material, the relationship between the Bindi and Mansoor fails to draw the necessary laughs, veering towards histrionic rather than bitingly funny. But when the play takes a turn for the more melancholy and dramatic, Vyas and Missouri have a much better handle of the material, making their longings and resentments perfectly clear. Flashbacks to their younger selves, played earnestly by Divya Hariharan and Rishabh Kapoor, also help give us a better sense of who they are and the hardships they’ve been through. A particularly affecting moment is when the older Bindi watches her younger self, reliving an important phone call to her parents.

More effective in establishing the comedic tone of the play is the rest of the cast. Made up by a large ensemble of over a dozen additional characters, they embody various stereotypes with liberal doses of slapstick humour. There’s the wannabe gangsta (Pauras Rege), the camp gay (Prateek Vadgaonkar), the butch policewoman (Sneha Shetty), the new-age hippie (Sarah Martindale) and more. While they might be crassly drawn, the mostly Indian casting helps to subvert some of those cliches, allowing us to see them in an unfamiliar context.

Tim Booth’s set design of a sea of couches, while functional and eye-catching, doesn’t fully succeed in conveying the airport setting clearly. It’s mostly thanks to Ritesh Vaghela’s understated crowd ambience that we get a feel for the location. The couches are much better utilised during the many flashback sequences, alongside Sam Mence’s lighting design, where they operate in a more literal fashion. Musical direction, also by Vaghela, is also one of the show’s indisputable highlights, featuring a talented band of musicians and a superbly jazzy soundtrack. Sayanti Chatterjee’s vocals are especially smooth and a pleasure to listen to.

It’s worth noting that the original production Love N Stuff was performed as a two-hander rather than the ensemble comedy that Prayas presents here. And it’s easy to imagine the play works more effectively that way as an actors’ vehicle. By having only two performers juggling the chaos of so many characters gives their existence a stronger theatrical purpose. So while catering the script to a larger cast of actors is pragmatic, it’s inevitably at the expense of the play’s dramaturgy.

Love N Stuff often feels overstuffed, with themes including, but not limited to, parenthood, infidelity, and the immigrant experience begging for deeper examination. The result is the feeling of two plays awkwardly mashed into one. On one hand, you’ve got screwball comedy about stopping your husband from leaving the country; on the other hand, you’ve got serious drama about the difficulties of marriage. Though director Sananda Chatterjee is unable reconcile these two halves of the play, she does an admirable job of working with her cast to deliver an engaging ensemble experience. A fun play that doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

Love N Stuff is presented by Prayas and plays at TAPAC until 3 July. Details see Prayas

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Nik Smythe

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