Watching “Public Obscenities,” performed in Bengali and English, as an American born to eastern Indian parents is like being in on a delicious secret. I kept wondering if others around me fully appreciated the layered entendre of this play and realized by the standing ovation that my visceral reaction is precisely why they, too, could connect.
My family is from Assam and so our language is similar to the Bengali the characters speak. More eerily, my relatives’ homes look pretty much the same as the set, down to the shapes of the window grills and endless rows of light switches and the double doors we lock from the inside. I remember quickly darting in and out of the maze of a mosquito net erected every night, trying to find sleep atop thin mattresses on beds that double as divans for drop-in company.
Perhaps playwright Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s greatest gift is bringing us into a home that is so … authentic (the word is not hollow here; it rings as true as the sound of spoons stirring sugar into cha) but also universally welcoming. He plops us right into a family dinner during a PhD student’s trip back to Kolkata with his Black partner. Deepest of gratitude to Chowdhury for not making this another desi coming-out story. Sometimes, it’s nice to acknowledge the families who embrace us as we are and continue the storytelling into other chapters of our lives.
The set is as multi-layered as the storyline, which revolves around photographs of the family patriarch developed and discovered decades later. Moments of flashback and reverie and virtual conversations are captured in cinema, photos, texting screens, all with occasional subtitles. Warning: The play is more than three hours long, and some past attendees told me they felt it could have sped up. I disagree. The setups, the silences, the mundane of finding lights and cables and chargers and fiddling to make them work form a necessary part of our immersion in the work.
“Public Obscenities” dissects language on multiple levels. An uncle banters via instant messenger with a divorcee in Minneapolis, CAPS LOCK ON. Choton’s study focuses on queer slang in Kolkata and the limitations of Western terms. All the while, he finds himself in the role of translator with boyfriend, Raheem, which creates discomfort as they move among worlds neither might actually understand.
“There are scenes that are 90% in Bangla and scenes that are fully in English,” Chowdhury told Playbill, saying he decided based on the point of view he wants to convey to the audience. “There were moments when it felt really important that the non-Bangla speaking audience be sitting in Raheem’s point of view. Those are the scenes in which I have chosen not to translate the Bangla. It’s about the characters translating to Raheem in real-time, so we get it at the pace that he’s getting it.”
You’ll get it.
Public Obscenities is playing at the Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn N.Y. until Feb. 18. It’s been on TDF for $35. Full-price tickets are $95 and up, partial-view $65. The Sunday, Jan. 28 show is pay what you can, and there are talkbacks on Feb. 3, 10 and 17. Details here.
While I have you, some other plays I can recommend or have booked for the next few months:
Job: If you work in technology (umm who doesn’t?), run to this play by Max Wolf Friedlich. It stars Peter Friedman and Sydney Lemmon, both of whom were on HBO’s Succession, as a crisis therapist counseling a tech worker during a session with many twists and turns. It’s playing Jan. 19-March 3 at the Connelly Theater, 220 E 4th St. in Manhattan.
An Enemy of the People: I saw this in 2017 at the beloved Barrow Group and loved it as much-needed commentary one year into the Trump presidency. Its central question: Does democracy even work? Well, 2024, here we go again. Jeremy Strong (also of Succession) is starring in the Broadway version next month. So are Michael Imperioli (Sopranos, The White Lotus) and Victoria Pedretti (Origin). It starts Feb. 27 at Circle In The Square Theatre 1633 Broadway/235 W. 50th St. in Manhattan.
Uncle Vanya: Despite all the times this famous Anton Chekhov work has been adapted, I confess I’ve never seen it. My dad is a huge Chekhov fan (we both spent our lives dissecting why some people make it and others don’t) so I booked these seats as soon as I saw Steve Carell (yes, of The Office) will be playing the titular role. It’s translated by Heidi Schreck, the force behind What the Constitution Means to Me (which also got me through the Trump years). Previews begin April 2, 2024, at the Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, 150 W 65th St.. in Manhattan.
Finally, a shoutout to this finding from the Fairy Princess Diaries that 2024 will be a “most Asian season on Broadway” with a number of leads played by Asian actors. It reports: “Broadway, for the first time ever in a season – without musicals set in Asia – will have an unprecedented, NINE possibly TEN new Asian heritaged PRINCIPAL roles in shows that are not revolving around the performer’s background.” Those shows include The Great Gatsby, Sweeney Todd, Hadestown, Merrily We Roll Along, among others.