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Theater Review

A Stab at Emigre Life

In the darkly comic, layered 'Queen of the Remote Control,' a South Asian family adapts to Calabasas; their daughter tunes in to other dreams.

September 13, 2002|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Playwright-director Sujata G. Bhatt's "Queen of the Remote Control," which premiered Wednesday at East West Players, is East West's first work presented by a writer of South Asian descent, and the first to feature a South Asian cast.

Bhatt's story of a prosperous physician couple who traded life in Bombay for comfy Calabasas and their two, like, totally Valley children is certainly not the first East West production--and probably not the last--to explore the conflict between an older immigrant generation and its American offspring. In this case, the catalyst for the culture clash is son Nitin Shah's (Kal Penn) return home to introduce the family to his new fiancee.

But while there is nothing particularly surprising about Bhatt's concept, her darkly comic take on assimilation, which she co-directs with East West producing artistic director Tim Dang, provides enough layers, secrets and lies to make this play something deeper than "My Big Fat Indian Wedding."

Bhatt's ambitious attempt to cover all the bases--social, emotional, religious and political--results in a few couch-bound scenes in which the family seems to be interviewing each other for a "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" installment on the history and culture of India. But it is that same ambition that takes the play beyond the easy jokes about clothes, food or American slang that often characterize such stories.

The jokes are there--and, about half the time, they're funny. But with the gags is a sensitive and often moving attempt to visit the uglier side of what happens to the spirit in the process of becoming an American--including a gloves-off look at prejudices about caste and skin color that the Shahs drag with them to their new world.

And, by the end, there is a sharp reversal of who appears to be "Queen of the Remote Control."

The Shah family's complacent existence is viewed through the disapproving eyes of 17-year-old Shilpa Shah (Poorna Jagannathan), a bored young Val who is taking a break from watching television and visiting the malls to complete her college applications. Her parents, Divya (Meera Simhan) and Ashok (Bernard White), want her to go to Stanford. She wants to head for New York City to attend Columbia--mostly because it's farther from the Valley. Her stumbling block: The Columbia application requires her to write an essay about what person--living, dead or fictional--she would most like to be. She has no idea of either who she is or who she'd rather be.

Her plans to devote the weekend to this task are derailed by a phone call: Her brother Nitin is getting married and bringing his intended home to meet the family. Shilpa must forgo an escape to Ojai with a friend to work on her essay to stay home to chop vegetables with Mom and meet Padma (Sulekha Naidu), the newest member of the family.

Shilpa just can't seem to escape her family, or Calabasas--but when the going gets tough, she grabs the remote control and retreats into the world of TV. Sometimes, she's watching real television--she loves game shows. And sometimes, she is able to actually turn the members of her family on and off with the remote.

Television as a metaphor for escaping reality--well, yawn. But using the remote control itself as a dramatic device has some promise. The technique works beautifully in some cases--watch Shilpa rewind and replay her pompous air-bag father in a particularly hilarious moment--and less so in others. There's little consistency to the choices about where and when to insert the power of the remote into the action. The element that inspires the title of the drama remains its least focused part.

Jagannathan--tall, coltish, petulant, radiant--does a terrific job of combining Shilpa's judgmental sarcasm in describing those around her with a shaky cluelessness about her own life and faults. She renders the character both winning and completely insufferable--in short, a real teenager.

But it is Simhan's Divya who becomes the most watchable character. She's at first the perfect, plump suburban mom, toting shopping bags from Crate & Barrel and spouting such statements as "Life is not about happiness, it's about family," but later reveals depths of anger, passion and insight that can't be turned off, even with a remote.

"Queen of the Remote Control," East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. No Saturday matinee Sept. 14. Ends Oct. 6. $25-$30. (213) 625-7000. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Poorna Jagannathan...Shilpa Shah

Meera Simhan...Divya Shah

Bernard White...Ashok Shah

Kal Penn...Nitin Shah

Sulekha Naidu...Padma Rao

Written by Sujata G. Bhatt. Directed by Sujata G. Bhatt and Tim Dang. Set design by Akeime Mitterlehner. Costume design by Dori Quan. Lighting design by Jose Lopez. Sound design by Nathan Wang. Stage manager Victoria A. Gathe.

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