East West Players open their 46th Anniversary Season with the World Premiere of Shane Sakhrani’s infectiously funny and utterly charming A Widow Of No Importance, a generation gap comedy set in Mumbai, India that theatergoers from any ethnic background are likely to embrace as warmly as its core South Asian audience.

The widow in question is Deepa Kirpalani (Lina Patel), still quite lovely at 50(ish) but condemned by cultural traditions to spend the rest of her days garbed in white from head to toe as she prays to Krishna for moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). With married adult son Sandeep (Parvesh Cheena) off working in Singapore, Deepa’s primary concern these days (besides the aforementioned prayers) is in finding a husband for daughter Tara (Puja Mohindra), still a beauty at the ripe old age of twenty-five but rapidly approaching her expiration date as an eligible bachelorette. With Deepa’s glamorous matchmaker friend Lalitha (Anjali Bhimani) aiding and abetting her in this husband hunt, the only stumbling block to Tara’s future marital bliss is Tara herself, fed up with over two dozen set-ups so far and finding herself good deal more interested these days in pursuing a Masters degree in the States than in snagging a man.

Meanwhile next door, Sandeep’s recently divorced childhood friend Vinod (Sunil Malhotra) spends the bulk of his time wallowing in despair, with the daily exception of his visits to “Auntie” Deepa for some Indian tea and sympathy. Once Vinod lets the cat out of the bag about his childhood crush on Deepa, however, it’s only a matter of time before …

There’s no need for a degree in Romantic Comedy to figure out what comes next, nor is being a romcom fan a prerequisite to falling under the spell of recent USC MFA grad Sakhrani’s decidedly South Asian take on love and marriage, whether the first or the second time around.

After World Premiering a number of plays not of the caliber of East West Players’ mainstream revivals, A Widow Of No Importance makes it three absolutely terrific new Asian-themed originals in a row—Wrinkles, Krunk Fu Battle Battle, and now Sakhrani’s curry-flavored treat, possibly the best of the bunch.

True, the sitcom setup is straight out of Hollywood (or Bollywood as the case may be), but Sakhrani’s characters are so deliciously drawn, the situations they find themselves in such a perfect blend of the South Asian-specific and the universal, and the execution so brightly polished that only the most curmudgeonly will fail to be won over.

Under the brisk, savvy direction of Shaheen Vaaz, the entire East West cast does topnotch work. The marvelous Patel lets us see the still youthful romantic hidden just beneath the widow’s face she presents to the world, making her romance with the younger, leading-man-handsome (and equally talented) Malhotra absolutely believable. It’s a joy watching the two accomplished thespians living out Deepa’s Harlequin Romance fantasies, costumed to imaginative perfection by Melanie Watnick. As for Patel and Malhotra’s romantic chemistry, the heat they generate can likely be felt way up in the balcony’s back row. As Tara, Mohindra so terrifically blends beauty, glamour, intelligence, and a girl-next-door charm that a TV series lead can’t be far away if Hollywood casting people will allow themselves to think outside the box. Bhimani is the very definition of fabulousness as Lathita, a character whose next move ought to be to a house on Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane. Finally, Cheena (of TV’s Outsourced) creates three distinct characters to award-worthy perfection. There’s wife-shopping Chirag, who sees himself as God’s-gift-to-women; nerdy Manoj, whose insistence that all his teeth are his own may be more than a slight exaggeration; and Deepa’s judgmental son Sandeep. Cheena draws the first two with an uproarious broadness, the last with considerable realism and restraint, making the trio of performances the ones you’ll most be talking about after curtain calls.

Scenic designer John Iacovelli’s set features the rich reds and golds we’d expect in a Mumbai home, and morphs ingeniously into the play’s various other locales. Jose Lopez lights it with a vibrant mix of colors. John Zalewski’s sound design is one of his best and most varied, from the suspense-building sonic underscoring that is his trademark to a music mix straight out of Bollywood (to which the cast perform choreographer Bhimani’s infectious dance steps). Michael O’Hara’s carefully chosen properties complete the all-around excellent design. Katherine E. Haan is stage manager.

A handy glossary is included in the A Widow Of No Importance program, but you don’t need to be an expert in Indian culture to fall in love with Sakhrani’s delightful confection. You’ll not only leave the theater fully entertained, but a good deal more informed about South Asian traditions. Though a play about South Asians in the U.S.A. might be more ideally up East West Players’ alley than one about life in The Old Country, A Widow Of No Importance opens Season 46 on an auspicious—and hilarious—note indeed.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 

–Steven Stanley
September 21, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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