If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where the playwright was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and why his comedy about a kid who identifies with Holden Caulfield is running at the Black Dahlia Theater, all that John Lahr kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. But my editor and the show’s publicist would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I didn’t.
So, reverting back to a critic’s monotone, I’ll mention that Rajiv Joseph grew up in Cleveland and instantly appeared on New York’s stage radar when Huck & Holden opened at the Cherry Lane Theater earlier this year. His hourish one-act is now making its West Coast premiere under the talented Claudia Weill’s direction but, unhappily, doesn’t live up to the promise of the show’s opening moments.
Navin (Kunal Nayyar) is an Indian engineering student attending college in America, where he’s expected to live the straight and narrow — allowing, perhaps, for his one indulgence, Hawaiian pizza — before returning to an arranged Hindu marriage. Along the way, however, he gets stuck with a lit-class assignment to compare Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield, the young male rebels in Mark Twain’s and J.D. Salinger’s most famous novels. In one giddy scene of miscommunication, he goes to a library to track down a seemingly elusive book with the name Huck and Holden— which, he discovers, is actually the title of his school assignment. (Joseph has told interviewers the scene is based on a true incident involving his Indian-born father.)
Navin’s misunderstanding is corrected by Michele (Raina Simone Moore), a young African-American who gives Navin a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. The virginal Navin lingers, smitten by this library assistant who spends most of her time gingerly flipping through a copy of the Kamasutra and flipping out over her luggish, opaque boyfriend, Torry (Frank Faucette). Before long, nerdishly attired in short sleeves and clip-on tie, Navin is partying with Michele. He later insinuates himself into her relationship with Torry by chivalrously breaking into the boyfriend’s bedroom to retrieve a necklace Michele had left there.
Navin doesn’t seem like the type to willingly face brawny Torry’s fists — let alone to go through the man’s porn collection or to get Torry’s sex tips on “ass-waxing” and “the way of the dog.” Navin, however, does go down these mean streets, though not alone, for he’s accompanied by a spiritual mentor in the imaginary, turbaned figure of Holden Singh (Danny Pudi), an amalgam, Navin says, of Caulfield and a bad-boy Sikh whom Navin idolized back in Calcutta. Singh appears at crucial moments when Navin needs some balls or backbone, loosening the bonds of tradition that suddenly seem so constricting in America.
Singh is not the only character to spring from Navin’s subcontinental subconscious. Kali (Jameelah McMillan), the destructive Hindu deity, also appears on the scene, to mischievously push the mild-mannered Navin and hot-tempered Torry into a climactic confrontation. McMillan, attired in Ivy Chou’s imaginatively over-the-top costuming and sporting an extra pair of arms, is not so much a goddess as a ghetto sistah who’s bent on shattering Navin’s placid life. By play’s end, thanks to Kali and Singh, Navin has taken the first steps toward a sexual and philosophical transformation.
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The audience, however, has not followed him. Instead, we’ve sat through some culture-clash shtick and a few dialect gags. (“I would like to compliment you on your taste in porn,” Navin stiffly comments in his Bengali lilt to Torry.) Holden Singh’s frat-boy swagger has nothing to do with Holden Caulfield, the neurotically asocial teen who despised frats, swagger and dating games — in essence, postwar America. Singh — and, more to the point, the play — has even less to do with Huck Finn, whom Navin neither conjures as an apparition, nor even comments upon. If Singh resembles any worldly character from pop culture, it’s Humphrey Bogart from Woody Allen’s play and film, Play It Again, Sam. (“I never saw a dame yet that didn’t understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45.”)
Joseph ignores the obvious about our literature and life — that the icons we’ve anointed as American male rebels — denim- and leather-jacketed, existentially cool and taciturn — are notoriously dry wells of practical knowledge. James Dean, Andy Warhol or Bob Dylan are the last people who would offer advice to anyone on any subject, let alone dating. That’s what makes them so mythical and attractive. It’s also what makes them so infuriating. After all, the two novels that redefined American rebellion in the 1950s, The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, were dismissed, respectively, by Mary McCarthy and Truman Capote. These critics didn’t belong to a stuffy establishment but were part of an adventurous generation, neither young nor old, that still believed in the role of fiction to deliver messages, only to be told, “It ain’t me, babe.”
On the ground level, Weill’s production is noticeably uneven. Her cast is energetic but rarely rises above Okay, with Navin scoring some points for vulnerability, though Pudi, in his turban, prep-school blazer and crooked necktie, exudes none of the lanky charm expected of even a frat-row Lothario. Although it more resembles a used-book store than Michele’s library, Craig Siebels’ book-encrusted set is a splendidly chaotic landscape of reading, and, with its Murphy bed–like shelves that swing down, admirably utilitarian. Still, its torn-off book covers glued to flat boards remind us of the bait-and-switch nature of Huck & Holden, a play that promises literary discovery but which never gets past the titles.?
HUCK & HOLDEN | By RAJIV JOSEPH | At the BLACK DAHLIA THEATRE, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. | Through November 19 | (323) 525-0070 or www.thedahlia.com