Cast: Danish Husain, Vrajesh Hirjee
Directed by: Danish Husain
Adapted from: Chinese Coffee by Ira Lewis
(Picture stolen from The Hoshruba Repertory's Facebook page; I assume that's okay.)
When a Delhi group brings a play called Chinese Coffee set in New York to Madras, there will be some challenges. Having arrived an hour early for The Hoshruba Repertory’s performance, I was to discover that the first of these is trying to explain to the sound boy what exactly they need him to do. But then, there are some advantages. Like, you don’t have to try too hard to make the audience laugh, when you light up right under a sign that says ‘Pugai Pidikkakkoodaadu’ (‘You should not smoke’) in Tamil. Of course, chances are that the irony was lost on Danish Husain.
The original play is about Jake Manheim and Harry Levine, middle-aged BFBFs (Best-Friends-Because-
FuckItThere’ sNoOneElseWeCanStandEnoughToSp eakToForTwoHours): world-weary, bitter and neurotic in turns, because they haven’t realised their potential. Jake is an out-of-work fashion photographer and Harry a published, but struggling, writer. It’s a wonderfully crafted play, channelling the audience’s sympathies to each of the characters in turn. And it’s brilliantly adapted by Danish Husain, who almost retains the names (Yaqoub Khan and Harvinder ‘Harry’), and so cleverly shifts the ethos to Delhi – complete with digs at Zangoora – that I couldn’t quite imagine that the original had been tailored to New York. This also means that the title remains an enigma, but I’ll leave that for when you watch the play.
While some of the lines carry the inspired wit that is usually a by-product of an evening with marijuana, they depend on delivery. Despite a thin audience – the play wasn’t well-publicised, and most of the theatre-going crowd was diverted to a simultaneous performance by a local group – the actors were in their element.
Danish Husain and Vrajesh Hirjee don’t look the ages they’re playing – 50 and 44 respectively – but their body language and voice modulation achieve what powdering (or shaving off part of) their hair may not have. They move and sound like crabby-tempered Stephanians who know they’re better than everybody else, and are frustrated that they have to take the trouble to prove it to a world – or country – that wants its Chetan Bhagats.
In the original, Harry Levine moonlights as doorman at a French restaurant – the fact that this isn’t a believable fit in Delhi only struck me in retrospect. Vrajesh Hirjee’s imitation of a glottal French accent is delightful, but he outdoes himself with Punjabi Hinglish. The audience was in splits, the laughs slightly delayed by the task of figuring out what the likes of “baro” and “risaku” were supposed to be.
It’s a difficult play to carry off, because the texture of the interaction moves from annoyed-confrontational, to sympathetic, to empathetic, to hostile, to empathetic again, to enraged-confrontational, to the point-of-no-return. This also means the play starts off with sarcasm, segues into humour, and then turns stark. When the audience is caught off-guard, it searches for laughs. And slapstick tends to work.
Both Danish Husain and Vrajesh Hirjee seemed to temper the show to the audience (which took a while to warm up to the subtlety of their nuanced delivery), throwing in possibly ad-libbed additions about “waiting for Godot”, the Park Festival, and the sort of wordplay that guarantees laughs (“A support system? What’s that, like, a bra?!”, “Don’t be callous, it was my callus!”)
They truly excel at timing, though, which parts of the play hinge on. The script contains lines like, “You change the subject...then attack...then
dis-em-bowel me psychologically”. While Vrajesh Hirjee plays his obsessed, anxious, vexed character as jumpy-fidgety, Danish Husain plays the sardonic Yaqoub with a veneer of unflustered cockiness that is suddenly ripped off to expose a genuinely angry man. Despite the appearance of bouncer-like auditorium staff, armed with watches, at the doors towards the end of the play, Danish Husain exploited the pauses, which are so significant to Yaqoub’s character – for instance, drawing smoke slowly from a cigarette when Harry is spitting out his long defence to a single provocative line.
There are quirky Indianisations, with a hilarious reference to shagun, an idiosyncratic argument over the quality of food at a favourite restaurant, and a delicious dig at the JNU-types (Oh, how much fun that is when you know so many people of that breed!) And then there are elongated vowels in the strain of Received Pronunciation (“Oeuw! The reading veih-n!”). Both these serve to endear the characters to us, as do the underplayed lines that turn out to be symbolic in retrospect – an argument over “phlegm business”, we find out, is about something else entirely.
It’s quite incredible how well the reference to televised afternoon dramas and Hollywood translate into the Indian equivalent. The actors took the trouble to add lines about the Madurai University and Krishna Sweets as a nod to the Madrasi audience, but they’re such a good serendipitous fit that they will do just as well in Delhi (though apparently, Krishna Sweets hasn’t spread its mysore-pak-coated tentacles to the NCR yet).
I wish there had been a larger audience to witness such a fine script, and appreciate its enactment by two such skilled actors. Because there are at least four reasons to watch the play – the script, the adaptation, Vrajesh Hirjee and Danish Husain.