By Anosh Irani. Directed by Rachel Ditor. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre Company. At the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, February 15. Continues until March 11
Anosh Irani’s The Men in White is a play divided. It tells the story of Hasan (Nadeem Phillip), a young man living in Dongri, a tough and grimy neighbourhood in Bombay. He’s the adopted son of a butcher and loathes his job as “a professional chicken murderer". Hasan has fallen hard for Haseena (Risha Nanda), a girl from the block with medical school in her future.
While slicing poultry, Hasan fantasizes about becoming a famous cricket player. He can’t even afford a bat.
Meanwhile, Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Shekhar Paleja) lives in Vancouver, where he plays on the verdant cricket pitches of Stanley Park. The team is terrible, and Abdul’s teammates quarrel over everything, from old religious divides to their batting order.
Amir Ofek’s set is divided too. The Bombay scenes happen on one half of the stage, where bloody butcher’s aprons are slung over chicken cages. On the other side, the Canadian story line happens in a white, antiseptic locker room. The set echoes a very real division in prosperity and opportunity, but it’s an overly practical and uninventive response to the play’s duelling story lines.
The action never overlaps or overflows between the two sets. Director Rachel Ditor might have made more creative use of the space to explore the connections between Vancouver and Bombay (as the city of Mumbai is referred to in the script).
The Bombay story line is the more successful of the two. Sanjay Talwar plays Hasan’s adoptive father, and he has a fun, sharp-tongued chemistry with Phillip and Nanda. The warm humour and chiding yet loving patter among the trio reminded me a little of tales by the late beloved storyteller Stuart McLean.
The West Coast locker-room scenes are less successful. The cricket team is a lineup of white-clad clichés—the faux ladies’ man, the Chinese nerd, and the level-headed team captain. These performers didn’t find their rhythm on opening night, and so the Canadian story arc felt clunky and forced in comparison with the tender moments in Dongri.
Irani is an award-winning author as well as a playwright, and the play covers a novel’s worth of territory—religious strife, undocumented workers, young love, sexism, gang violence, the loose ties of camaraderie, and how to hit a googly. I wondered if Irani had taken on too broad a canvas and wanted the playwright to go deeper on a couple of key themes.
In her director’s notes, Ditor connects The Men in White to the many crises of the Trump White House, saying "There's a recklessness in the air since Trump's election." But because of the show’s diluted themes, this feels like overreach. I admired the production for its warmth and charm, but it lacked the incision that a more focused show might have offered.