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theatre review

Free Outgoing, starring Anusree Roy and Andrew Lawrie, is a play about teenage sex and scandal.John Lauener/The Globe and Mail

Free Outgoing is such a ripped-from-the-headlines play that it's startling to learn it had its genesis in 2005, and its premiere in 2007.

Deepa, a 15-year-old at the top of her class in the conservative Indian city of Chennai, is filmed by her boyfriend as they have sex after hours at school. The cellphone-shot video is passed from one boy to another, and next thing it is all over the Web and has become the centre of a media and political furor of a flavour Canadians are all too familiar with.

Provocatively, Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar chooses never to put Deepa – described at one point as the "most-watched teenager in India" – on the stage in her play, now having its Canadian premiere thanks to Toronto's Nightwood Theatre. She refuses to exploit a teen girl's image the way so many characters in the play do; instead she dramatizes the ripple effects of the viral video on Deepa's proud brother Sharan (an impressively angry Andrew Lawrie) and, in particular, her widowed mother Malini (Anusree Roy).

Malini begins the play in denial and is soon in mad desperation, trying to find a way to deal with the escalating mess as principals, neighbours, a creepy co-worker and eventually a cosmopolitan reporter pass through her flat with false promises of empathy and escape.

With a dangerous mob, both outraged and aroused by a sexual transgression, growing outside the windows unseen, there's a hint of Miss Julie to Free Outgoing. In tone, however, it's closer to a classic social-problem play in the Ibsen mould.

Chandrasekhar, a journalist-turned-playwright who is from Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu, wrote Free Outgoing with an Indian audience in mind, based on real events in India. But it had its first production at the Royal Court in London and still has not been produced in her home country.

While it's not possible to keep the nightmare scenario of the play completely at a distance, watching Free Outgoing in Canada in 2014 is nevertheless a game of comparing and contrasting cultures.

On one hand, when Malini orders Deepa to take a taxi home, but to be sure to take a picture of the licence plate and text message it to her before getting in, the horrific accounts of gang rape that have lately come from India immediately come to mind. And when Sharan is told by a neighbour that he is the man of the house now, the production ignites anxiety about the possibility of a honour killing.

At the same time, however, when Deepa's boyfriend and his family disappear and there is a rumour that they have run away to Canada, there is a certain irony in their choice of destination. Canadians are still reeling from a series of teen suicides related to the online circulation of sex videos or pictures of underage women. The danger is the same, but different here: A mob of women with broomsticks may not come to the door, but harassers can hound teens all the way to their bedsides thanks to the inescapable tentacles of social media.

If Free Outgoing were written by a Canadian, "cyberbullying" would no doubt be central in the conversations. What's useful about Free Outgoing is that it skips over such euphemisms to get to the heart of the matter: Ultimately, the problem – in India or here – is less about how to stop teenagers from having sex (they always have, and always will) but how to fix society so that our obsession with teenage girls having sex doesn't destroy them.

In short, a topical play – and one of very few scripts to reach us from India in recent years as interest in the country has risen. It's too bad that director Kelly Thornton's production, which I saw in its final preview, is so lacklustre – at times clunky, at others merely uninspired.

Anna Treusch's sitcom set accentuates a problem in tone that, in Roy's performance especially, roars back and forth from light comedy to howling drama with a capital D. There is a sense of dread that keeps you interested as to how matters will play out, but half-lit, half-stylized scene changes make you imagine a more rigorous presentation of the material.

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