Queen of the Remote Control

There's nothing wrong with a traditional American Realist play--if the conflicts are compelling, the relationships deeply explored. Granted, as a theatregoer, I wouldn't want to subsist only on a fare of family dramas set in middle-class homes, with their requisite dark secrets lurking just beneath the gloss. But there's a reason Arthur Miller, William Inge--even August Wilson?--have their reputations. They developed a formula that works.

However, many contemporary playwrights seem uncomfortable writing in this vein. They feel a need to "theatricalize" their essentially conventional family dramas. After all, we're not living in the '50s anymore. This usually entails breaking the fourth wall, playing with time and space--and, for some reason, often involves the idea, "Hey, let's suddenly put our characters in a game show." As Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Brian Friel attest, these framing or exploratory devices can work (though I've yet to enjoy the game-show gambit), but they must be necessary to the story. They rarely are. And the result is typically a freakish hybrid of sketch comedy, flat standup, and kitchen-sink drama. Such is, unfortunately, Sujata G. Bhatt's Queen of the Remote Control at East West Players.

One would think Bhatt would be content with breaking down walls by penning the first South Asian-themed production at East West and with depicting the daily lives of a middle-class Indian-American family, a unit rarely seen onstage or in film. She doesn't need to further fool around with the dramatic form--grafting on a narrator who sometimes freezes the action with her remote control to comment on the ridiculousness of her parents' situations or, as mentioned, ending Act One in a pseudo-game show in which Mom and Dad must answer for their apparently loveless union. These tangents are unnecessary and annoying. Sad, because Bhatt's story is essentially interesting if not revolutionary: A typical Calabasas teen struggles with the pressures of her college apps, her brother's recent engagement to a frustratingly "nice" girl, and her parents' infuriating lack of communication. Ultimately Mom's detachment is revealed as stemming from a traumatic past in India, one she and her husband felt was best left behind.

It's not world-shattering stuff, but, when Bhatt pulls back on the wacky commentary and lets the characters play out their melodrama, it works. Bernard White in a smart, humorous turn as the explosive but well-meaning Dad and Meera Simhan as the sweet but steely Mom are the two big reasons Bhatt's play works when it does. She's further assisted by a clean, functional set design by Akeime Mitterlehner. But Tim Dang, who co-directs with Bhatt, had a duty to convince this young playwright to trust her material and not concern to herself with making it hip or clever. It's neither, but who cares? There's strong material here--painful, real, even funny--when Bhatt lets it be. As it is, Bhatt too often goes for the theatrical, in the same way her narrator goes for the joke to escape her discomfort. Not only is it not needed, it's deadly.