Naatak offers us the perfect antidote to the unrelenting horrors of the daily news: two hours of non-stop laughter. Naatak, the Bay Area Indian Theatre Company, has adapted the classic play Arsenic and Old Lace into Hindi and has staged a hilarious production. A farce set in Brooklyn, New York has morphed to Hyderabad, India to side-splitting effect.
The original play, written in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring, (you can read it here) was performed on Broadway in 1941 starring Boris Karloff, and was then made into a hit 1944 film starring Cary Grant.
In Kesselring's play, Abby and Martha Brewster, two sweet old ladies, charitable and kind, live in a Brooklyn home that has been in their family for generations. Their nephew Teddy, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, lives with them. Teddy’s brother Mortimer is a drama critic who has fallen in love with Elaine, the pastor’s daughter who grew up in the same neighborhood.
Mortimer makes a startling discovery: a corpse in the window seat! And this leads to dark revelations about his sweet aunties, who are (gasp) knocking off old men to release them from their lonely lives on this earth. The plot is further complicated when Jonathan, Mortimer and Teddy’s unsavory brother wanted for murder, comes by with Dr. Einstein, a plastic surgeon. More than one member of the Brewster family turns out to be murderous.
Naatak’s play (in Hindi with English supertitles) is ably directed by Manish Sabu. True to the original plot but set in Hyderabad, the Brewster sisters become Ayesha and Mehar, who are adorable and speak in a lilting Hyderabadi Hindi. “Yes” is “hau”, no is “naako.” For the uninitiated, a quick orientation to Hyderabadi Hindi can be found in this hilarious post. The live-in nephew is Tipu (Sultan), Murtaza is his drama critic brother, Nazneen the Maulana's daughter is his love, Zaafar is the unsavory third brother, and Dr. Luqman is the plastic surgeon.
The set is splendid: a two-story house, with a staircase leading to rooms above, and a cellar below.
Murtaza engages us with his conversations with Nazneen. Then, upon discovering a body in the window seat, he is thrown off his equilibrium. To Nazneen’s bemusement, his behavior towards her completely changes. A man who proposed marriage barely fifteen minutes earlier now can't wait to get her out of the house.
Zaafar, the long-lost brother, arrives with his plastic surgeon friend Dr. Luqman in tow, bringing their own, er, baggage. As the aunts and nephew vie to get credit for dispatching more people, the family's predilections and predispositions weigh increasingly on poor Murtaza. To add to his woes, he is plagued by a policeman who fancies himself as a playwright.
Dr. Luqman (played by Chinmay Vaidya) is one of the most delightful characters in Naatak’s production. He horrifies us with his easy acquiescence to giving Zaafar a new face (many times, we learn) to help him evade the law. His body language and stammer are pitch-perfect.
In the real world, we listen to leaders of the US government weaving one peculiar narrative after another. We scratch our heads, wondering if they genuinely believe what they are saying and are therefore completely delusional, or if they are seeking to delude the entire population to realize some sinister agenda.
In such a world, this play where the characters are completely forthright about their nefarious deeds comes as a breath of fresh air. A plot of fabulous absurdity, set in charming old Hyderabad, brought to life by talented actors.
Walking away from the theater, I tried to remember the last time I had laughed for the entire duration of a play and I fell short. Still laughing, and very contented, I drove home.
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