Watching an actor steal a show is one of the absolute thrills of live performance — but the purest method of that thievery has nothing to do with scenery-chewing, grand solo moments or sparkly razzmatazz. It’s nimble and cat-burglar quiet, not demanding attention, not meaning to upstage.
As a doctor named Charu in Deepa Purohit’s new play “Elyria,” set in 1982 Ohio, Bhavesh Patel has the element of surprise very much in his favor. Charu is a mild, conformist, ordinary man — and in his muted earth tones, outfitted for obscurity. In his first scene, he arrives home from the hospital, pours himself a bowl of cornflakes, takes the last of the milk, has an unremarkable conversation with his homemaker wife. He’s a remote presence, lost in his own thoughts. Yet every beat and pulse of him has, for the audience, a subdued magnetism.
It’s a genuinely exciting performance, layered and full, flecked with the driest comedy. The only trouble with such standout excellence is that it shifts the axis of the play, so that it seems as if Charu is at its center. “Elyria” in fact revolves around two women and their tangled history with each other, though they both also have a history with him: Dhatta (Gulshan Mia), who married Charu two decades ago, back in Tanzania, as their families had arranged; and Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose), who fell in love with him when they were young and had his baby, though he never knew.
The sprawling “Elyria” is a microcosmic tale of the Indian diaspora, crisscrossing continents from Africa to Europe and North America. Directed by Awoye Timpo for Atlantic Theater Company, the play finds Dhatta and Vasanta in Elyria, Ohio, not far from Cleveland.
Dhatta and Charu have lived there since 1969, parents to a college-age son, Rohan (Mohit Gautam), who is all-American in his preppy rugby shirts. Vasanta, who works in a hair salon at J.C. Penney, and her husband, Shiv (Sanjit De Silva), a would-be entrepreneur, are newly arrived after 20 years in Nairobi.
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“Not many of us East Africans here in these parts, no?” Shiv says when the two couples run into each other at the movies.
Shiv, though, is the only one of them who has no idea that this is a fraught reunion, let alone that Vasanta’s presence in town feels to Dhatta like a betrayal and a threat, even a trauma.
For almost all of Act I, the audience is left in the dark, too, about what is going on between the women, which makes the first half of the play feel in retrospect like prolonged throat-clearing.
A spoiler, then, because there’s no discussing “Elyria” without it: Rohan, Dhatta and Charu’s son, is Vasanta and Charu’s biological child. Both women have always known it. Once the audience does, too, the many threads of the play begin to form a more taut, less enigmatic tapestry.
But there are so many threads, and Purohit, attentive to her characters, wants to follow them all: the two marriages, the parent-child relationships, and Rohan’s charming, might-it-be-romance friendship with Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman), a British exchange student. Memory sequences are also woven through, involving Vasanta and Dhatta’s younger selves, and there’s some lovely Indian dance. (Choreography is by Parijat Desai.)
The muchness dilutes rather than intensifies. There isn’t time to give the history between the women the weight and tension that it needs if the audience is to invest in it.
Jason Ardizzone-West’s geometric set, though, is a thing of spare beauty, the square stage (not raised, as it usually is, in the Linda Gross Theater) surrounded by the audience on all sides and elegantly lit by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. The costumes, by Sarita Fellows, have some fun with 1980s fashion, despite a few misses, like Rohan’s jeans, which aren’t Levi’s but should be, and the way women wore leggings then versus now.
But Patel’s Charu is perfect — even his too-long sideburns, a relic of the ’70s: as if the nation had slipped from the Me Decade into the Reagan era while he was distracted at work. Charu is comic and reckless, selfish and decent, myopic and real. It’s an exhilarating performance, a work of actorly alchemy.
Through March 19 at the Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.