The program to Shane Sakhrani's new comedy, A Widow of No Importance, at East West Players in Little Tokyo, cites a warning so serious that it's also posted in the theater lobby: “This production contains some mature language and situations, flashing lights and fog effects.”
It's unclear which of these dangers poses the greatest threat to the wellbeing of society in general, and of theater audiences in particular. And though none in the sequence of potential provocations suggests anything a 12-year-old wouldn't confront at a Taylor Swift concert, one could infer from the sequence that “mature language and situations,” coming first, is probably the most dire of possible offenses. Because, honestly, going to the theater, how often does one meet up with mature language and situations? The warning is helpful, so we can brace or even medicate ourselves to ward off heart palpitations or even a stroke.
Personally, I've always been fearful of flashing lights, even when settled into the firm confines of a theater seat. Those lighting bursts still threaten the lull of a bland visual palette and other soporific comforts, so the warning is well-heeded.
And who wouldn't be grateful to be given advance notice of fog effects? That stuff can creep up on you and scare you to death, if you're not ready for it. The only sensation more jolting than the 300-foot plummet at Knotts Berry Farm's Supreme Scream is an unanticipated and slowly encroaching wall of fog in the theater.
Sakhrani's comedy is an almost perfect match for the notices warning of its dangers. The “mature language and situations” refers mainly to a 50-year-old widow's sexual attraction to a man who could be her son. He's not her son, or her relative. He's a longtime friend and neighbor who recently was dumped by his wife. He tells the widow she was among his first youthful crushes, and in the course of the play he finds himself attracted to her all over again.
This is scandalous in the world of the play not because it's all vaguely Oedipal (if you're willing to skip Sophocles' themes of incest and the patricide, of which there's no trace here) but because the comedy is set in Mumbai, India, land of arranged marriages and the kind of protocol wherein a 50-year-old widow is expected to live out her life alone, praying and honoring the memory of her late spouse. That spouse's photograph is a prominent feature of John Iacovelli's interior-apartment set design, which includes the corridor leading to the door of the suitor across the hallway. So this is a comedy about a widow named Deepa (sweetly and briskly played by the impish Lina Patel) whose forbidden desires for a younger man are slowly awakened.
In other words, this is the kind of material, riffing on social norms, well-trod by the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw near the turn of the last century, that has been a mainstay of family-centric Bollywood movies since the 1990s.
And what awakens Deepa's deepest desires, you may ask, given how she starts the play in a white grieving shroud, praying to a shrine she keeps in her living room, watched over by a portrait of the dead?
Deepa has a renegade daughter in her mid-20s named Tara (Puja Mohindra), who wants no part of Mumbai's antiquated and claustrophobic marital customs. Even worse for her mother, Tara has no interest in getting married at all. She's ready to bolt for America, with its new life and 50 percent divorce rate in a land where people are free to marry for love rather than status — or whatever else moves them.
The cast of characters also includes animated matchmaker Lalitha (Anjali Bhimani), who's working on dates for Tara and maybe for the young man across the hall, Vinod (Sunil Malhotra). At first Tara finds Vinod a bit of a loser, an understandable if unkind perception. Then again, she's the kind of character who meets a blind date (set up by Lalitha) in her mother's apartment dressed like a street prostitute, and acting like one, too. She does this partly for her own amusement, partly to underscore the point that Mumbai's dating customs, heartily endorsed by her mother, relegate her to a whore. The goofy date (Parvesh Cheena, in one of three roles) finds himself delighted by her sluttishness and is ready to propose on the spot. And such moments, broadly staged by Shaheen Vaaz, are the wellspring of the comedy's satire.
To the production's credit, once the play's social stakes are established — which takes most of Act 1 — the ensuing comedy from the newfound, autumn-spring love and lust between Deepa and Vinod starts to take on an intrinsic delight, thanks in large part to director Vaaz's determination to sustain an undercurrent of frivolity, to the performers' charm, and to the English-language Mumbai dialects that keep the comedy bouncing along with a kind of Celtic poeticism.
Mother and daughter soon find themselves vying for the affections of divorced neighbor Vinod — the central event being the wedding of Vinod's ex. He was at first too pained and ashamed to attend. But as the play trots along, the questions become who's he going to take, and which of the competitors can show up in the hottest sari. (Melanie Watnick's costumes alone tell at least half the story.)
Enter Deepa's brooding son (Cheena again) ready to cart mom away as his live-in servant. He's appalled by her romance with the guy he went to school with, and now she has to choose between duty and desire, between personal sacrifice and personal fulfillment, between East and West.
The play is a diverting sliver of cultural anthropology and identity politics, partly as creaky as an antiquated comedy of manners, punctuated with moments of sitcom farce, all reaching for the poignancy of the clash between the old world and the new. It's shocking for the easily shocked. As for the rest, it's as pleasant as sitting through a rerun that has its moments.
Don't be put off by the warning in the lobby: Neither the flashing lights nor the fog effects are overly intimidating.
A WIDOW OF NO IMPORTANCE | By Shane Sakhrani | Presented by East West Players, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo | Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through Oct. 9 | (213) 625-7000 | eastwestplayers.org