It’s a conversation that Basminder Batra, known to her friends as Boz, would just as soon not have. But since yet another well-intentioned but clueless white dude has asked her where she’s from — he means, really from — and even more annoyingly, “What are you?,” Boz has once again hefted the too-familiar burden of explaining her family’s history.
Yes, she grew up in this very state of Wisconsin, only an hour away from the bar she is opening in Madison. That’s the scene of this strained encounter, which occurs about halfway through Jaclyn Backhaus’s “India Pale Ale” at City Center Stage I. Boz’s parents were born in her hometown, Raymond, too, amid “one of the highest concentrations of Punjabi populations in the world” outside of India.
Boz, played by the luminous Shazi Raja, delivers this and other helpful information — including what IPA on a beer bottle stands for (it’s the same as the play’s title) — with a friendly but weary patience. Her life, she says with a sigh to her unsophisticated new friend, Tim (Nate Miller), often feels like “a series of teachable moments.”
That’s a fair, if only partial, description of Ms. Backhaus’s new play, which opened on Tuesday night in a Manhattan Theater Club production. “India Pale Ale,” directed with studious effervescence by Will Davis, is a cheerfully instructive work, created with the aim of bridging one of the many cultural gaps in these dangerously divided United States.
Ms. Backhaus demonstrated that pedagogy and entertaining playwriting are not necessarily incompatible when her “Men on Boats” became a sleeper hit Off Broadway three years ago. That work, inventively staged by Mr. Davis, ingeniously repopulated John Wesley Powell’s 1869 rafting expedition into unmapped Western territory.
The members of Powell’s team were all male, and so the characters remained in Ms. Backhaus’s play. But she stipulated that these men be embodied by “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, gender fluid and/or nongender-conforming.” Through that casting directive, “Men on Boats” became a canny deconstruction of period machismo, a reminder that ostensible theatrical stunts can reap big creative dividends.
“India Pale Ale” introduces its own unexpected juxtaposition of archetypes. Batra family legend has it that Boz is descended from the sort of romantic, marauding pirate once associated with swashbuckling movies starring Errol Flynn.
His name was Brown Beard, and he is regarded as a tutelary ghost by Boz and her father, Sunny (Alok Tewari); her mother, Deepa (Purva Bedi); and her younger brother, Iggy (Sathya Sridharan).
When times are hard, the clan remembers its intrepid Punjabi ancestor, who dared to sail unknown waters on a hijacked ship carrying a precious cargo of beer. The Batras lift one another’s spirits by talking in the growly mode of eye-patch-wearing cartoon sea captains. As Boz’s wise, earthy grandmother (Sophia Mahmud), says, “A little ‘yaaargh’ never hurt nobody.”
It is the ghost of Brown Beard that Boz invokes as, at 29, she leaves Raymond to open a bar in Madison. More generally, Brown Beard’s world-traveling adventures become a metaphor for the Batra ancestors’ crossing oceans to settle in America, pioneering their own trail through an alien and not always receptive environment.
Thus in one elaborate transitional scene we find the cast swimming through darkness in bright, eye-popping attire that combines 17th-century seafaring garb with traditional Punjabi dress. (Arnuflo Maldonado did the costumes.) Boz has summoned her inner pirate to deal with a tragedy that has been visited upon a Punjabi temple back home.
That sequence is certainly the headiest in the production, which features a reflective-walled set by Neil Patel, transformed by mood-cueing lighting (Ben Stanton) and sound (Elisheba Ittoop, who also composed the original music). The scene also defines a turning point in the play’s tone, from chipper to momentously somber.
Well, more or less. Even in its bleakest moments, the dialogue is punctuated with the wholesome teasing and perkiness of a family sitcom. The supporting characters, drawn in the same vein, include Deepa’s gossipy best friend (Angel Desai); Iggy’s thoroughly modern fiancée, Lovi (Lipica Shah); and his brolike best friend, Vishal Singh (Nik Sadhnani), who is also Boz’s former boyfriend.
They’re a likably peppy lot, although all that matey “yaaargh-ing” can get a bit tedious. I’m assuming that Ms. Backhaus deliberately shaped her characters in the mold of familiar domestic comedies to underscore their universality.
But they seldom register as fully dimensional beings. Ms. Backhaus endows most of them with a single defining quirk — like Deepa’s obsessive-compulsive urge to clean — that points to complexity without ever really going there.
The script seems to be acknowledging the limitations of its own methods of portraiture when Boz, after dutifully enlightening the culturally insensitive Tim about American-Punjabi life, encourages him to bring his friends to her newly opened bar. “We can have a nice little after-school special,” she says.
In fact, you could imagine “India Pale Ale” being successfully performed in American middle and high schools. Teachable moments are sadly necessary these days, to point out, among other things, that “What are you?” is a worse than obnoxious question.