The Men in White, the new play by Vancouver-based writer Anosh Irani, feels like two plays. One part of the action takes place in India, the other in Canada; the scenes alternating from each side of the stage. In Mumbai (which Irani calls Bombay), the scenes take place in a Muslim neighbourhood poultry shop, where chickens are slaughtered to order. In Vancouver, the action plays out in a locker room where a cricket team gathers for games and not always lighthearted banter. The set – grimy and bloody in the Indian chicken shop, white on white in the Canadian change room – intersects at the back in a smart bit of set design with an area that is a locker-room shower in Canada and presumably a chicken/butcher hose-down area in India.
The story concerns two brothers: Hasan (Nadeem Phillip) in India and Abdul (Shekhar Paleja) in Canada.
In India, Hasan, who slaughters chickens for his meagre living, would much rather be wielding a cricket bat than a bloody knife. His boss and father figure Baba (Sanjay Talwar) is dismissive of Hasan’s fantasies of becoming a cricket star. Hasan has other fantasies too; he has a serious crush on Haseena (Risha Nanda), a student who has medical-school ambitions, and comes into the shop every now and then to order a chicken.
In Vancouver, Abdul is also living a disappointment. Brought to Canada with promises that did not pan out, he has found some solace in Stanley Park, playing cricket with other Indo-Canadians. But the team has been on a terrible losing streak. They hatch a plan: Bring Hasan to Canada, just for one season, to help them score some wins.
The scenes in India are wonderful. Hasan is complex and lovable – smart although naive about the world and frustrated by his lot in life. Poorly educated, he harbours some offensive, out-of-date views, particularly about women. Baba is a no-nonsense boss who shares gentle Old World wisdom with Hasan, whose ambitions seem to confuse him. Back in Baba’s day “we just did our work, we ate and we died.” It was enough. Still, his affection for his charge becomes evident. Haseena is smart, tough and lovely and up to the job of enlightening Hasan. These performances are terrific and there is some very funny dialogue. (There’s a bit about the Gastown steam clock that Vancouver audiences will love.)
But in Canada, the action clunks. The performances are flat, the dialogue is often stiff and the Hindu-Muslim tensions feel forced. Not to say they don’t exist, but they are not developed properly. These scenes feel like lifeless interruptions when really all the audience wants is to get back to India, where the interactions are as alive and fresh as those chickens. (Helpful tip: If you are going out for dinner beforehand, maybe don’t order the chicken.)
As the play begins, Hasan suggests Baba introduce employment appraisals at the chicken shop, noting that his friend who works at a call centre undergoes such reviews annually. Perhaps he is dreaming of a proper job in Canada, where performance reviews would be a regular thing (they’re not so great, trust me). But the ugly truth about employment opportunities in Canada is soon revealed through Abdul’s experience working in a kitchen. To give you an idea: Abdul refers to the person who sponsored him not as his sponsor, but his owner.
The play feels so contemporary; its themes – Islamophobia, immigration – are obviously very of the moment, taking on a new urgency of late. The play also touches on severe problems in India: poverty, sexism, gang violence. At the same time, the immigrant experience is not all Canadian sunshine and roses. There is much to endure: bullying in the schoolyard, a dearth of employment opportunities, terrible job conditions and discrimination even by the Canadian-born Indians a generation ahead of the more recent arrivals. These are crucial issues, especially in the current political climate. I am glad a playwright of Irani’s calibre is dealing with them.
But the urgency gets bogged down in the disappointments of the production. So many things didn’t scan: Why was Abdul’s English so much worse than his brother’s, when Abdul was living in Canada and Hasan in India? Why was Baba telling stories about “my wife” to Hasan when, as the backstory is revealed, it’s clear that Hasan would have known Baba’s wife very well? There was some business with Baba trying to hand Hasan an envelope that called to mind the great sitcom misunderstandings of yesteryear (that is to say, the preposterous situations that would be easily resolved if the guy being given the envelope would just open it already, as he by all rights should have been motivated to do). There is a moment with the cricket bats in the locker room that is meant to tug very hard at our heartstrings, but its inauthenticity became a distraction.
What a missed opportunity. Irani, who was born in India and immigrated to Canada, is a talented novelist. His most recent book, The Parcel, was excellent, short-listed for both the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. He has written a play that should have huge resonance, particularly in the current political atmosphere. Further, it offers opportunities for a large cast (nine roles) of diverse actors and also reflects contemporary Canada back to ourselves – which is essential if theatre is to stay vibrant and relevant. I had big hopes for this play.
I think I still do. It needs a rewrite and better direction, with a focus on the scenes taking place in Canada. I hope there’s some way this can happen; this is a story we need right now.
But for a play that presents integration as an ideal, the division and imbalance between the two threads of action were too great – making it impossible to succeed. There’s an instructive metaphor in there, but I don’t think that’s what the creators were going for.
The Men in White is at the Granville Island Stage until March 11 (artsclub.com).Report Typo/Error