It is hard but not impossible to blend drama and comedy, but the actor turned playwright Ayub Khan-Din is not up to it in East Is East. This semi-autobiographical first play is about an Anglo-Pakistani family in a working-class section of London where George Khan, the Pakistani owner of a fish-and-chips shop, rules his English wife, five sons, and one daughter with paternalistic Muslim autocracy. We do not get to see his first wife in the old country, or his eldest son who has escaped from home by running off with an English girl.
The second wife, Ella, abetted by a married sister who often comes to visit, tries to stand up to George; the children, however resentful, help out in the shop and bite the bullet. But they eat forbidden foods and smoke on the sly, play hooky from the mosque, and grouse a lot. Saleem, who pretends to study engineering, is actually an art student; the youngest, Sajit, never takes off a hooded parka that has become his ill-smelling carapace. It is 1971; there is war in the homeland, friction in the family, and George decides to marry off his two eldest remaining boys to the daughters of his friend, Mr. Shah. The girls appear only in photographs that most of the other characters inspect with speechless horror.
Some of this is funny, some not; the periodic bouts of grimness seem jarring, contrived. This may be partly due to the inexperience of Edward A. Hajj, playing his first professional role as the father. Though he commendably makes George less brutish than he might be, he keeps him unformidable. He cannot make the brutal beatings he administers to his family jibe with the rest of his performance. The ten other actors do well. Jenny Sterlin (Ella) is English; several others are of Indian or Middle Eastern descent; some have studied and acted in England. All blend into a seamless ensemble, expertly directed by Scott Elliott.
East Is East is a co-production of the New Group and Manhattan Theatre Club that proves fruitful. The set designer Derek McLane and the lighting designer Brian MacDevitt – both admirable on their own but unbeatable in their frequent collaborations – have wrought their customary wonders. The costumer, Mattie Ullbrich, does not let them down.
Although the English-Pakistani conjunction is new to us on the stage (we have seen it in movies, where this play, too, will soon appear), there is a generic sameness in all acculturation pieces that only better writers than Khan-Din manage to transcend. That this work received several awards in England is probably attributable to British guilt feelings toward the Pakistanis.