Powerful performances highlighted by Anna Khaja’s riveting star turn command attention in the Los Angeles Premiere of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Free Outgoing. Still, the unremitting bleakness of its shocking-but-true story of conservative Indian values in today’s anything-goes Internet age could make it a hard sell for East West Players.
The handful of chuckles sparking its initial scene, one that has 40ish Chennai, India single mom Malini (Khaja) attempting to persuade her accountant colleague Ramesh (Anil Kumar) to purchase multiple boxes of “miracle” silver polish are about the only laughs you’ll get during Free Outgoing’s ninety-five minutes.
The agitated return home of Malini’s sixteen-year-old son Sharan (Kapil Talwalker) suggests something amiss, but it’s only when high principal Nirmala (Kavi Ladnier) shows up unexpectedly, fifteen-year-old star-pupil Deepa’s notebooks in hand, that the reasons for Sharan’s agitation become clear.
Malini’s daughter has been suspended for sexual misconduct with a fellow student.
Malini greets this, and the even more shocking revelations soon to come, with a denial has her lashing out not just against principal Nirmala but against Deepa’s sex partner’s defensive father Santhosh (Dileep Rao) and even against her own son before her daughter’s guilt at last sinks in and she is left to find a solution on her own.
Had Deepa’s transgressions taken place in a pre-You Tube age, things might still have worked out for Malini, Sharan, and Deepa even without husband, family, or friends to come to their aid.
Such was unfortunately not the case for the real-life mother of two whose headline-making story inspired Free Outgoing, and bubble-dwelling L.A. audiences may find themselves disbelieving just how dire her circumstances eventually become. (Then again, Malini and family inhabit a world where even middle-class families may live without running water, so some attitude adjustment is a must.)
Not that local audiences can’t relate to issues of cyber-bullying and cyber stalking, or pressures faced by single mothers or by high schoolers for whom success is everything.
Still, as was the case with EWP’s A Widow Of No Importance a few years back, I can’t help feeling that an Indian-American story would prove a more easily relatable fit for The Nation’s Premier Asian American Theater.
That being said, and despite a steadily accelerating hopelessness that makes Free Outgoing as demoralizing a play as I’ve seen in a good long while, a spellbinding Khaja and her stellar costars (all of whom assume Indian accents for their roles) kept me glued to the edge of my seat.
As he did in EWP’s Animals Out Of Paper, recent USC grad Talwalker once again proves himself a rising star as the heartbreakingly defenseless Sharan. L.A. theater favorite Kumar combines equal parts sympathy and sleaze in a refreshingly change-of-pace role. Rao is splendid too in his one scene as Santhosh, and Ladnier shines as three distinct characters. (She’s also judgmental neighbor Kokila and TV news glamour girl Usha.)
Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and prop master/assistant scenic designer Glenn Michael Baker bring Malini’s Indian flat to authentically detailed life. Rachel Myers’ costumes are equally spot-on, and though I’m not quite sure what’s up with the flashing florescent lights during scene changes, Katelan Brayer’s lighting and Sharath Patel’s sound design add dramatic impact throughout.
Mueen Jahan understudies the role of Santhosh. Brandon Hong Cheng is stage manager. Lauren Cucarola is assistant costume designer.
Though not the play I personally would have chosen for Desai’s first directorial assignment as East West Player’s brand-new Artistic Director, Free Outgoing did hold my interest throughout. If for no other reason than to catch Anna Khaja’s latest stage triumph, it is worth checking out.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
February 15, 2107
Photos: Michael Lamont