Review: Public Obscenities Keeps It Mostly Private

Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s play makes its world premiere at Soho Rep.

There’s a whiff of false advertising about Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s Public Obscenities. The play takes place within the private confines of a well-to-do family’s home in Kolkata. And nothing particularly obscene transpires — at least, nothing that could possibly shock the audience at Soho Rep.

Of course, obscenity is in the eye of the beholder, especially as vaguely defined by section 294 of India’s penal code, which prohibits “obscene act(s) in any public place” but only if they result in “the annoyance of others.” This is the reason why Indian cinemas have typically taken a conservative approach in screening foreign movies, excising the sexy bits. All it takes is one jerk claiming to be triggered to ruin the party for everyone.

That is surely on the mind of Choton (Abrar Haque) as he returns to Kolkata to conduct research for a PhD dissertation about queer life in West Bengal. He’s brought along his filmmaker boyfriend, Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), to record interviews with subjects he will meet through Grindr. They are staying in his late grandfather’s home, now occupied by Choton’s aunt (Gargi Mukherjee), her husband (Debashis Roy Chowdhury), and their faithful servant (Golam Sarwar Harun).

Echoes of ”The Cherry Orchard” reverberate as the man of this downwardly mobile Brahmin house spends several hours a day playing online billiards, while his wife indulges in sweets that are exacerbating her diabetes. Raheem seems uncomfortable with the idea of a live-in servant, while Choton wonders if his life might have been better if his parents hadn’t moved his branch of the family to California. The kindling is arranged and ready for an explosive domestic drama — if only someone would light a match.    

Public Obscenities is one of those slow-boil plays that feels like it’s building to something spectacular, but never actually does. Chowdhury’s aggressively naturalistic direction is the source of both our anticipation and disappointment as pregnant pauses reveal themselves to be mostly dead air over the course of three yawn-inducing hours. The actors devote several minutes to rearranging the set and props during extended transitions. And several more minutes feature characters silently scrolling through their phones or chatting online. Unrequited passions remain so, and this trip across the globe concludes with a search not for ”belonging” or ”identity”, but toothpaste.

It’s fairly banal stuff, but it does reveal something about rapidly changing attitudes in India around sexuality, if not class and caste. As Choton explains his family’s attitude, “I can be gay, as long as I get a PhD in gay.”

The threat of section 294 as wielded by intolerant policemen looms much larger for Shou, one of Choton’s subjects, whom Tashnuva Anan embodies with radiating joy and an irrepressible sense of mischief. Along with NaFis, who appears in a cameo role, Anan brings to the stage a fascinating snapshot of queer life in Bengal, seemingly avant-garde but in reality, deeply rooted in tradition.

Performing in both English and Bangla, the entire cast works diligently to bring Chowdhury’s understated, occasionally mumbling vision to life: Haque is perfectly cast as the perma-student more comfortable inhabiting his thoughts than his body. Powell easily conveys Raheem’s scrupulously polite unease. As the excessively gracious host, Mukherjee is as sweet as the biscuits this house serves with tea. Through subtly shifting postures and rapid intakes of breath, Debashis Roy Chowdhury illuminates the internal life of a very online person. And Harun feels like a visitor from a much older world, the contours of which have not changed as much as his employers would like to believe.

The set, by the design collective dots, effectively uses every inch of the small stage at Soho Rep to create an enclosed world, shielded from the oppressive heat (natural lighting by Barbara Samuels) and relentless noise (sound by Tei Blow) of the outside. Costume designer Enver Chakartash tells the story of Choton’s flirtation with his ancestral culture (and the incredible heat in which it was forged), as a hooded sweatshirt gives way to a linen kurta. We’re always aware of the teeming life beyond the house, but our focus remains there.

With all the dramatic dominos Chowdhury sets up and the painstaking time he spends establishing character, Public Obscenities feels like the beginning of something much larger — the first several episodes of a potentially fascinating Netflix series. In its present form, unfortunately, it’s just another meandering living room drama.