If Douglas Sirk had spent time in the Western Indian state of Gujarat, or among immigrants from that region as they have scattered around the world over the last several decades, he might have concocted something like “Elyria,” a deliciously diverting new melodrama from playwright Deepa Purohit that draws strength from its peculiar and particular cultural specificity.
The show, which opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off Broadway Linda Gross Theater, centers on a love triangle involving characters of Indian descent who came of age in Kenya, then migrated to London before winding up in the Cleveland suburb of Elyria. We first meet them there in the 1980s at a festive gathering of other Indian immigrants dressed to the nines and performing multi-step dances to traditional garba music.
The prim Dhatta (a striking Gulshan Mia) is shocked to see her old childhood friend Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose), whose lower social status led to her rejection by Dhatta’s now-husband Charu (Bhavesh Patel). Vasanta has just arrived in town and taken up work as a hairdresser, earning money to support her ne’er-do-well husband, Shiv (Sanjit De Silva, appropriately caddish), who is eager to escape Ohio despite the fact that his entrepreneurial ambitions never seem to materialize into actual work. Dhatta recognizes quickly how she could be a threat to her marriage to Charu, a surgeon in the local Ohio hospital who hasn’t quite forgotten his youthful romance with Vasanta.
The central trio are shadowed by younger versions of themselves, who observe much of the action on the outskirts of the Jason Ardizzone-West’s set and take center stage in flashback sequences to provide neatly apportioned backstories, including about the origin of Dhatta and Charu’s only child, a son named Rohan (Mohit Gautam) who is completing his degree at a local college. (Confusingly, Bose also plays the younger Vasanta in some of these flashback scenes.)
Rohan is a studious lad, respectful of his parents even as he bristles at the dates they arrange for him with the daughters of Indian family friends. He seems more drawn to a Pakistani pal from college, a pop-music-obsessed boy named Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman) who shares his interest in roller skating and Taco Bell, but his cultural upbringing and the 1980s Cleveland setting constrain him from speaking his truth.
The grown-ups in the story display no such inhibitions and the revelations and recriminations begin to pile up as the story progresses — before wrapping up in a rather too-neat ending that basically leaves everybody a little bit unhappy. (Douglas Sirk, the auteur behind such 1950s Hollywood fare as “Written on the Wind” and “All That Heaven Allows,” would be pleased.)
If the family and romantic dilemmas sometimes feel pat, they are wrapped in a finely woven and glistening sari of Indianness that lifts the material. (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting and projections, as well as Sarita Fellows’ costumes contribute to the effect — including Hassanali’s Members Only-style track suit that extends the otherness to the U.S. Midwest of the ’80s.) Director Awoye Timpo extracts uniformly excellent performances from her cast, bringing a naturalistic authenticity to the proceedings.