The Indians Are Coming to Dinner
at Pacific Resident Theatre
Reviewed by Les Spindle
January 29, 2012
Photo by Vitor Martins
Jennifer W. Rowland’s play is billed as a comedy, but its smart literary allusions to Greek drama (“Agamemnon”) and opera (“Rigoletto”) and steadily spiraling web of despair imbue the eccentric piece with elements of classic tragedy. As the play focuses on an affluent yet troubled San Francisco household in 1984, where a lot more talking than listening occurs, the story’s backdrop is President Richard M. Nixon’s landslide election victory and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India. The play also cleverly illuminates East-West cultural differences, yet the essence of Rowland’s themes is more personal than political. Impeccably acted and exquisitely designed, director Julia Fletcher’s rendition scores a bull’s-eye.
As the focal character, Harold Blackman, a discontented businessman in his late 60s, Michael Rothhaar parlays the juiciest part into the most moving performance. In a prologue featuring the blustery Harold in the guise of a Maharajah, the family patriarch breaks the fourth wall to share the news that he is expecting to fulfill a lifelong dream of being appointed ambassador to India. He proudly summarizes his myriad career accomplishments while stating his desire for more.
As the narrative gets underway, we discover that Harold’s 18-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Thea Rubley), is paying a brief visit from her studies at Dartmouth College. Harold assumes that she has come home to attend a dinner he is hosting for Indian government official Anil Desai (a drolly amusing Kevin Vavesseur). The patriarch hopes the evening will culminate in Desai’s confirmation of Harold’s appointment as ambassador. Alexandra, however, is focused on fulfilling her own dream. Yearning to be a professional opera singer, she is home to compete as a finalist in a competition that could earn her a job with an Italian opera company. Unfortunately, the competition happens to be the same evening as Harold’s all-important dinner, where he expects his entire family to be present.
The superb Rubley quickly earns our empathy as a daughter whose ambitious father and daffy mother (the very funny Sara Newman) are completely oblivious to her passionate devotion to her chosen field, not to mention her other emotional needs as well. Alexandra only gets a degree of understanding from her teenage brother, Christopher (a radiant Justin Preston), but he has his own problems, being a pothead with a rap sheet. Excellent support comes from Peter Chen, as the befuddled family cook, and Rikin Vasani, as Anil’s enthusiastic son, who hilariously leads the reluctant family in rounds of chants to a Ganesh statue.
The production is greatly enhanced by Tom Buderwitz’s ravishing and highly functional two-tiered set showing the main family room downstairs and three upstairs bedrooms, embellished by Leigh Allen’s evocative lighting. Keith Stevenson’s sound and Audrey Eisner’s costumes are likewise first-rate.
The script could stand some trimming. Some gags—such as one about a malfunctioning answering machine—merely distract from the narrative. Yet all in all this intelligent and affecting work is being given a superlative world-premiere staging.
Presented by and at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Jan. 28–Mar. 25. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (310) 822-8392 or www.pacificresidenttheatre.com.