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Ali Kazmi and Mirabella Sundar Singh star in New, now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre.Dahlia Katz/The Canadian Press

  • Title: New
  • Written by: Pamela Mala Sinha
  • Director: Alan Dilworth
  • Actors: Ali Kazmi, Fuad Ahmed, Pamela Mala Sinha, Mirabella Sundar Singh
  • Company: Necessary Angel in association with Canadian Stage and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 14

New’s opening scene is set in 1970 in an apartment with shag carpeting and scotch glasses, inhabited by a suave doctor with a wife and girlfriend who don’t know of each other’s existence.

But this Winnipeg-set play, now on in Toronto in a Necessary Angel production at Canadian Stage, is far from a door-slamming bedroom farce in the vein of Boeing-Boeing or Run for Your Wife.

Playwright Pamela Mala Sinha (Crash, Happy Place) has instead taken a familiar setup for crass comedy and used it to kick off a sensitive, snaking drama about three new Canadian couples sorting out complex relationships in a time of change.

As the lights come up, Qasim (Ali Kazmi), a Muslim doctor, is drinking his way through a bottle of hard stuff while on the phone with family and friends back in India who have coerced him into an arranged marriage.

Cue the entrance of his white girlfriend, Abby (Alicia Johnston), who is eager to finally have a conversation about moving in together. She doesn’t speak Bengali so has no idea what Qasim is saying to those on the other end of the line.

There’s an ounce of humour to this, but the pain registers more strongly in Sinha’s writing. In Kazmi’s poignant performance, Qasim is clearly betraying a woman he loves, for reasons that only eventually are revealed.

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Fuad Ahmed plays Sachin and Pamela Mala Sinha plays his wife, Sita.Dahlia Katz/The Canadian Press

There’s a similar tone in a later scene where Qasim goes to pick up his new wife, Nuzha (Mirabella Sundar Singh), at the Winnipeg airport – then suddenly runs off, leaving his friend Sachin (Fuad Ahmed) to greet her with flowers instead. This classic mistaken-identity scenario is written to be more melancholy than madcap.

Sachin, a university professor also of Indian origin, lives in Qasim’s apartment building with his wife, Sita (Pamela Mala Sinha), a dancer who won’t dance the old dances or speak the new language in Winnipeg. Their marriage has been on the rocks since a personal tragedy, and Nuzha’s sudden arrival in their small circle has profound ripple effects on their relationship.

The third South Asian couple in New are graduate students Aisha (Dalal Badr) and Ash (Shelly Antony), who are embracing counterculture in between classes – the former by exploring feminism, the latter by smoking pot and reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Designer Lorenzo Savoini’s set is a single slightly deconstructed but realistically furnished three-room apartment – bedroom, living room, kitchen – that takes turns playing each of the couples’ homes.

There’s a number of mentions in the play of the enduring trauma from the bloody partition of India, but in this close-knit diaspora community, Hindu and Muslim lives are literally overlaid.

New’s best plot line focuses on the young Nuzha’s gradual emergence from her cocoon living with the significantly older Qasim – whose coldness toward her she doesn’t understand at first. Sundar Singh’s performance is a marvellous, multi-layered blossoming, and it’s great fun to see Winnipeg through her eyes of wonder.

Sachin and Sita’s relationship is also compelling – a couple coming apart because one of them is embracing the new while the other is stuck in the past. (Or, perhaps, one is escaping into the new and the other is giving the past its proper weight?) Sinha’s powerful, wrenching monologues as Sita are showstoppers.

In interviews about New, Sinha has talked about wanting to paint a richer picture of immigrant life than what is often seen in plays and television shows written by second-gen writers, with parents who have thick accents and sexless existences and values stuck in the old country.

To help her Bengali-speaking characters connect with a broad audience, when the actors are speaking in fluent English that means the characters are talking in their mother tongue, and their accented English means the characters are speaking in English.

Sinha has succeeded in creating characters whose choices and circumstances circumvent newcomer clichés, but the portrait she paints of them can be quite pensive, sometimes even depressive, under the direction of Alan Dilworth.

There’s something ultimately ill-fitting about the production’s design, too, with group scenes a bit stilted in their staging inside the apartment, and short scenes outside of it confined to a small strip of echoey, empty stage. A more fluid sense of space might also have helped in picking up the pace.

What is undeniable, however, is the emotion of several plot lines in New, another Sinha play that packs a powerful punch.

Editor’s note: May 9th, 2023: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about Mirabella Sundar Singh's past theatre credentials.

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