Images on film saturate Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s Public Obscenities, now at Theatre for a New Audience as part of the Under the Radar Festival, following a run last year at Soho Rep. Ads for Indian products roll across a screen. References to Bollywood directors are tossed about. Tropes found in Indian cinema provide structure and impart meaning. In addition to being bilingual in Bangla and English, the play explores the languages of film and live theater, and how images can succeed and fail to convey the truth. But despite the effectiveness of this interplay, the conflict in Public Obscenities remains too low-key to make an impact over nearly three hours.
Choton (Abrar Haque) is an American PhD student visiting his family in Kolkata while writing a dissertation on queer Indians. Joining him is his boyfriend, Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), a Black cameraman who hasn’t made the leap from filming other people’s projects to making his own. Though he is there to record the interviews Choton conducts with queer locals, like the vibrant Shou (a captivating Tashnuva Anan), Raheem uses his camera lens to build relationships with Choton’s aunt (Gargi Mukherjee), her husband (Debashis Roy Chowdhury), and their servant (Golam Sarwar Harun in a wonderfully multi-layered performance).
Raheem and Choton’s relationship is challenged by this trip, and this is where the play falters. Points of tension, like Raheem’s discomfort about how Choton easily accepts having a servant while supposedly rejecting the “Brahmanism” his aunt and uncle value, not only stay unsaid but also don’t create enough friction to emotionally engage.
The ultra-naturalistic staging (playwright Chowdhury also directs) results in the two lead characters being extremely low-lit or with their backs to the audience in key scenes; a missed opportunity for the audience to connect to the actors. Other sources of conflict between the aunt, uncle, and nephew are similarly unmined.
The production elements come together seamlessly on the larger stage at TFANA. Scenic designer Peiyi Wong renders the family’s apartment in film-like precision. Barbara Samuels’ lighting conveys the time of day down to the minute.
The title references section 294 of India’s penal code, which bars “obscene act(s) in any public place” if they lead to “the annoyance of others.” All of the elements are in place for Public Obscenities to reach catharsis, but it ultimately doesn’t annoy (or provoke, or emote) enough.