‘Public Obscenities’ Off Broadway Review: A Stunning Snapshot of India Through a Gay Ph.D. Student’s Lens

Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s intimate and revelatory new drama explores many facets of society by showing, not telling

Jakeem Dante Powell, Abrar Haque in "Public Obscenities" (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Off Broadway’s Soho Rep continues to produce some of the most innovative new theater — both in physical production, which is always first-rate, and in terms of content that broadens the scope of what can be achieved on stage.

The venue’s latest production, Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s “Public Obscenities,” is an absolute stunner. Even before the action begins, you are immediately transported to a dilapidated second-story apartment in Kolkata, India, with walls of cracked plaster and faded yellow paint, lit by a tiny upstage window and fluorescent tube bulbs. (Set design by dots, lighting by Barbara Samuels.)

Soon, older auntie Pishimoni (Gargi Mukherjee) begins serving a meal to her visiting American nephew, Choton (Abrar Haque), a Kolkata-born, American-raised Ph.D. student who’s arrived with his cinematographer boyfriend, Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), to work on his documentary thesis project about queer life in modern India. The extended family is accepting of Choton’s sexuality and welcoming of his boyfriend — who soon becomes excited by an old camera unearthed by the longtime family servant, Jitesh (Golam Sarwar Harun), that had been a prized by possession of Choton’s late grandfather.

The camera holds an undeveloped roll of film with startlingly intimate images of the family patriarch that no one can explain — including his dementia-addled widow, seen briefly on video since she has long been bed-ridden. That is just one of the mysteries that Chowdhury gently explores during the course of his play, which tugs at ideas about family and connection as well as dynamics of class and gender roles. The show’s title underscores the main theme: the tension between what desires we make public and which we keep under the covers or behind closed blinds (or in private online chats).

Over the course of two acts and nearly three hours, we meet a range of characters who represent different aspects of Indian society. Jitesh is a mostly silent but haunting presence who serves as a constant reminder of the divide between upper-class Brahmin and the disadvantaged servant class, but there are also two of Choton’s subjects for his documentary project: a twentysomething named Shou who identifies as kothi, a gay man who prefers to bottom and presents in a very feminized way (Tashnuva Anan), and their older friend Sebanti (NaFis), a trans woman who briefly sketches how Indian women are both inspired and repulsed by her beauty and style.

Many of these conversations take place in Bangla, with translation coming through Choton and others for Raheem (and us) or English captions projected on the back wall. This approach can be disorienting, especially early on, when the English-speaking Indian characters sometimes speak quietly and haltingly — but the effect underscores Raheem’s experience as an outsider and the basic gist of the dialogue carries through, as when Choton laces his Bangla description of his research with untranslatable terms like “Black and Third World Feminisms” and “postcolonial context.”

In addition to those caption, video and projection designer Johnny Moreno also provides Choton’s FaceTime conversations to his dad back in the States, the photos that Raheem takes with that antique camera and — most memorably — the increasingly intimate online chats that Choton’s uncle Pishe enjoys with a Minnesota woman on a virtual billiards website. Pishe, a failure in business who’s now unemployed, stuck in an apparently loveless marriage and living in his in-laws’ home, emerges as a poignant figure both central to the drama and yet stuck on its periphery.

That dichotomy is crucial to understanding Chowdhury’s drama, which he directs with a restraint and subtlety that match his text. Scenes play out in a naturalistic way, mimicking the rhythms of life, and the meaning and significance accumulates over time as we get to know the characters and understand some of the domestic and cultural dynamics involved. He has admirably absorbed the ancient writerly wisdom to show, not tell. Indeed, the biggest narrative revelation is delightfully underplayed — in the play’s final moments, we are left only with the startled and delayed recognition of a character who has only just glommed on to a reality that has been hiding in plain sight all along.