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Theater Review

Navigating Two Cultures in 'Rice Boy'

April 28, 2001|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

The itinerary for Tommy and Father sounds as if it were designed by a mad travel agent: summer in India, winter in Canada.

No wonder the play about these characters, Sunil Kuruvilla's "Rice Boy," has a muted, dispiriting tone, with sensations of summer torpor and winter gloom.

Don't blame Tommy. He's still a kid. He goes wherever Father takes him, and in the summer of 1975, Father takes him from their home in Ontario to their roots in India, a land that Tommy last visited when he was too young to remember.

Staged by Chay Yew for the Mark Taper Forum's Taper, Too series at the Actors' Gang, "Rice Boy" is a spare look at a son and father who feel as if they're not wholly a part of either culture.

The play repeatedly moves back and forth between the two sides of the world. The Canadian sequences take place six months after the events in India. The Indian sequences are more fully fleshed out, with a much wider spectrum of personalities.

Chief among them is Tina, Tommy's somewhat older cousin, whose legs are so crippled that she's a virtual prisoner in her home. Tommy climbs a tree--represented by a single chair--and tells Tina what he sees. Soon he's helping usher her into the world in clandestine nocturnal excursions. They develop an affectionately teasing relationship, calling each other husband and wife.

Meanwhile, Tina's parents are planning her real wedding to a man she has never met. Not that matrimony looks very satisfying--Tina's parents are distant from each other. The marriage of the household servant and the fish seller is kaput.

As for Tommy's Father, he's still morose over the apparent drowning death of his wife 10 years ago--an event re-created in symbolic form as the play opens.

Despite the picture of a real kid on the cover of the program, the actor who plays Tommy, Ravi Kapoor, is an adult. While he has mustered a commendable degree of juvenile physicality in his performance, his age is still a barrier, especially in the supposedly faux-romantic scenes with his cousin. Lina Patel plays the cousin with beautifully sustained restraint.

The Canadian sequences take restraint too far. Instead of seeing anyone from Tommy's everyday life, we meet two men he encounters as he wanders afield in search of more stability and love than he's getting from his father. Christopher S. Wells (usually known in program credits as Chris Wells) is excellent as both of them--a Mennonite farmer, and a man whose own son is one of the missing children pictured on milk cartons.

But the balance between the locales seems off. Canada is where Tommy has spent most of his life, yet it's a mere shadow here, compared to the Indian village. It's hard to understand why Father, whose status has been reduced in Canada from math professor to pizza cook, has stayed in this cold, murky place for so long. Even if India is too painful because of his wife's death, why not try, say, L.A.?

Yew's staging yields mixed results. Shelly Desai and Meera Simhan as Tommy's Uncle and Auntie provide some subtle, sardonic exchanges. Ossie Mair is vivid in several small roles. But Subash Kundanmal's Father lacks sufficient vocal projection, and a few of the other actors also need to speak up occasionally.

Victoria Petrovich's set is stripped down; whether it's wholly a reflection of the play's parched emotional landscape or also of its budget is hard to tell. But sound effects help distinguish between the two countries.

* "Rice Boy," Taper, Too at Actors' Gang, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends May 13. $20. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Ravi Kapoor: Tommy

Lina Patel: Tina

Subash Kundanmal: Father

Shelly Desai: Uncle

Meera Simhan: Auntie

Noor Shic: Granny

Purva Bedi: Servant Girl/Mother

Ossie Mair: Fish Seller/Nut Seller/Umbrella Man/Sari Clerk

Christopher S. Wells: Mennonite Farmer/Mr. Harris

Written by Sunil Kuruvilla. Directed by Chay Yew. Set by Victoria Petrovich. Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee. Lighting by Jose Lopez. Sound by John Zalewski. Production stage manager Erika H. Sellin.

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