All Things Entertaining and Cultural
His play, having its world premiere production at InterAct Theatre, is endowed with a rich sitcom premise in which a Bangladeshi teenager, Ritu, a girl, age 15, supported for 80 charitably donated cents a day by an affluent gay couple from Lower Merion, Pa., arrives without ceremony or warning in the partners’ home that is furnished proudly, and ostentatiously, with $10,000 carpets, designer lamps, expensive pottery, and a picture that lets you see shadows from the bathroom behind it when the bathroom light in on.
You can see the comic opportunities already. The men have already discussed whether or not they would want to have children before Ritu appears. One of the partners is against having even a dog. Cultural differences and a language barrier are good for some yuks. So is the conundrum about whether the men should reveal their relationship to the adolescent whose innocence they assume is preserved in a young, untraveled Muslim. Then, of course, there’s jokes about food and skin care and modes of dress. There’s even a Latina best friend who adds to the ethno-political mix of the guys’ discombobulated home sweet home with her own wisecracks and feminist sensitivity.
As I said, Gil-Sheridan gives himself comic ammunition for several seasons of weekly episodes.
Except he doesn’t do well beyond thinking up funny possibilities. “Ritu Comes Home” simultaneously exploits and wastes the multitude of ideas its premise affords. Random one-liners, occasional character reactions, and several potentially hilarious notions emanate from the InterAct stage, but for the most part, “Ritu Comes Home” is a cluttered hodge-podge that doesn’t entertain consistently, even if taken for pot luck silliness, let alone tell a believable story, doesn’t advance a theme, and doesn’t take a firm point of view.
I would have been happy if “Ritu Comes Home” was just a farcical lark meant to tickle a funny bone and fade into vague memory. Then I could have my sporadic laughs, enjoy the good comic acting director Seth Rozin ekes from his cast, and write off its lameness as “no harm done.”
Gil-Sheridan doesn’t let the audience off that easy. I can only guess his intention was too show the folly of people who bend over backwards to satisfy the modern code of political correctness only to see all of their tiptoeing and care about saying or doing the” wrong” thing or, heaven forbid, being construed as offensive, go awry and create a greater calamity than if they were just true to their unedited thoughts.
I can only guess because Gil-Sheridan doesn’t make his intentions plain. “Ritu Comes Home” is a mess that flies in several different directions, takes weird plot twists because Gil-Sheridan doesn’t seem able to follow through on ideas, indulges in archaic stereotypes, especially in the portrayal of the gay characters, and grants itself permission to be insulting or politically incorrect while being critical of any character who may say something of which Gil-Sheridan might disapprove.
Oh yes, along with this hypocrisy on the hoof, Gil-Sheridan resorts to magic — infantile, desperate, witless magic — to move his plot along.
Gil-Sheridan might have gotten away with the massive deficiencies in his play if he had an ounce of finesse or the slightest modicum of charm. But no, he plods along heavy-handedly asking you to accept any drivel he serves, including a joke about Rice-a-Roni being cooked in traditional Indian/Bangladeshi pot called a handi, which only Ritu can pronounce.
Gil-Sheridan has a third-rate mind that buys into contemporary twaddle without knowing how to peddle his hip, but condescending thoughts on the stage. His script has sequences of contrived badinage that might amuse one if it was taking place spontaneously at a dinner party — A drunken group rendition of “Danke Schoen” is fun. — or during a card game but rings as hollow and forced when presented as theater. His wit, when visible, is confined to bitchy rejoinders and admonitions about going too far over the politically correct line. Apparently one cannot even tease about ethnicity or take a judgmental attitude, but heavy people and “carb bingers” are fair game.
More apparently, Gil-Sheridan is content to let stereotypes that would get him ousted from most liberal enclaves play out of his stage. And not for the purposes of being satirical or criticizing them. For the purpose of eliciting laughs from them. Cheap laughs. Trashy laughs.
Rozin has set Jered McLenigan and David Bardeen in high dudgeon as the gay couple. They swish and flounce with reckless abandon. McLenigan affects lispy diction that went out of vogue with the dawn of the millennium. Almost anything you can think of a being a stereotypical representation of homosexuality is in “Ritu Comes Home.” The performances of McLenigan and Bardeen, though fine as conceived and directed, would cause protests on Sansom Street if they involved African-Americans or Hispanics. Southern Asians are not treated much better. Ritu is not the hot-house flower the guys, Brendan and Jason, think she is. She is a knowing teen who may have lived in an unenlightened place in terms of treatment of women or luxury but knows how to appreciate and operate an iPhone and wants the American amenities she’s seen in movies and magazines. The guys’ misjudgment could have been funny if it was more directly played and not surrounded with so much twaddle.
When I say Gil-Sheridan has a third-rate mind, I mean he doesn’t even know the milieu he’s writing about. Playwrights are entitled to use their imagination. They’re praised for it. But Gil-Sheridan misses simple things about Brendan and Jason’s lifestyle that are too ignorant to accept, even from someone who gives the impression of a guy who might grouse about class warfare and inequality of wealth in clubs that thrive on that kind of blather.
Gil-Sheridan doesn’t know the people he purports to portray.
In one sequence, Jason, played by Bardeen, returns home from a shopping trip, alleged therapy for nerves frayed by Ritu’s arrival, and desperately has to go to the bathroom to urinate.
He enters the house in the familiar tizzy we all have when putting our keys in the door seems to signal our bladders, “It’s time. I can give you relief now.” Bardeen, as Jason, is doing the “gotta pee” dance and making the right tense faces, but when he goes into his bathroom — yes the one from which you can see shadows — he finds Ritu and his Latina buddy, Yesenia, there. They scream because they are in states of undress, and Jason flees.
Now he is in a bigger frenzy because he has to pee badly but has no toilet accessible. What to do? What to do? The situation is harrowing. McLenigan’s Brendan suggests Jason use a toilet in the basement. No, Jason says, the flooring is not good enough for him to stand on, even while urinating.
The solution, also suggested by Brendan, is for Jason to go outside and pee behind a tree on the couple’s well and expensively landscaped lawn.
That’s the course Jason takes.
Gil-Sheridan probably thinks he wrote a scene our recognition of Jason’s situation alone would make hilarious. Meanwhile, everything, and I mean everything, is wrong with the scenario from its premise to its outcome (no pun intended).
Let me count the ways.
First of all, Jason is a snob who buys exclusive and expensive items as much to impress Ian, a friend of his and Brendan’s, as much as to enjoy the comfort and luxury his salary and investments can provide. His home is a large one in an wealthy suburb. It is equipped with everything a person could want in terms of fine living. Do you mean to tell me that house has only one bathroom?
No. No. No. No. No. Jason would not buy a home with one bathroom. For one thing, that means that guests would use the bathroom he uses. What person who buys a new home after 1980 would accept that?
I can tell you Jason wouldn’t. He would have a bathroom adjacent to every bedroom. They would all be showplaces of porcelain and copper with sumptuous towels and lovely appointments.
Jason knows Ian would scoff if Jason and Brendan had a single bathroom.
And what about that toilet in the basement?
Do you really think Jason would urinate on his lawn — Urine is not good for plants; fertilizer comes from the other orifice. — rather than go downstairs in the indoors, begrudgingly or not, to take care of his pressing business?
Of course he wouldn’t. It’s just as funny a comic complaint that the poor soul has to stand on linoleum as it is that he has to whiz among the woods.
Gil-Sheridan wrote a bad joke, a bad sequence of jokes, that not only backfired but showed how little he understood characters he created.
Moving on, Brendan, left alone with Ritu, but with the counsel of Yesenia, decides to take Ritu shopping for clothes that might be more suitable to a teenage girl in America than the sari she arrived wearing.
Gil-Sheridan has established that Jason is the brainy one in the couple (assuming both cannot be brainy). Brendan is an actor who is said to be more than dim.
Even with that in mind, when he takes Ritu for a new wardrobe, she comes back with anotIher sari, and he has the handi the Indian inflection of which he cannot grasp.
The new sari is beautiful. As one character says, it is a stunning shade of blue.
But it’s a sari. Is Brendan that stupid that he takes Ritu to and Indian shop to get duds that would look more natural in Philadelphia? Even more preposterous, Yesenia, who is street wise and has common sense, goes along with it.
Gil-Sheridan is making jokes for jokes’ sake, and they lack humor because even if you want to ride along with his play, Gil-Sheridan makes too much unbelievable.
Back to Jason and Brendan’s shopping trip, the one Jason returns from with the demanding urge to pee.
Much is made of Jason being a snob who shops only at Whole Foods and has goods imported from places known for producing them. He wants everything to smack of the finest available.
Yet, when he goes shopping, he heads for Macy’s, not Nordstrom, Saks, or Neiman-Marcus. (A wag near me said that Macy’s is in Suburban Square, a mile or two away from Lower Merion. I maintain Jason would have gone to King of Prussia and Nordstrom, or at least a mile in the eastern direction to Saks on City Avenue.)
I like Macy’s, but to Jason, as created by Gil-Martin, Macy’s is tantamount to Wal-Mart.
Clothes may make the man, but the sweater designer Rosemarie McKelvey chose for Brendan is nothing the character would consider wearing. It is so “burbo” and has no sophistication or taste.
Brendan sleeps in that sweater. He and Yesenia get drunk in the living room while Jason retires to the bedroom for the night. They all wake up in the morning to find Ritu suddenly sitting in their living room. That when the trip to Macy’s is suggested. Yet neither Brendan or Jason shower or change their clothes before going out.
Gay guys? Rich gay guys? Going where Ian may see them without taking 15 minutes to shower and change? I realize I’m the one doing the stereotyping now, but trust me, it ain’t happening. (I once was on a cruise with a friend when we both got ill during a mid-Atlantic storm. The doctor came to our room to inoculate us with dramamine, and we asked him to leave. I crawled first to the shower and got washed, then my friend took a shower, before we let the doctor return. Dumb vanity? Yes. But real!!! Especially because the doctor was cute. And a doctor!)
Veering back towards Brendan’s dimness, the character, during a long absence in which no one, not even Yesenia, thinks to look for Jason, decides he wants Ritu to feel more at home, so he takes dirt from his garden and brings it into the living room with the idea of fashioning a mud floor similar to the one he surmises Ritu’s home in Bangladesh had.
Had Gil-Sheridan or Rozin instituted a more satirical tone to this production, I may have chalked such addled and ridiculous behavior to someone’s idea of going anti-Joey Vento (a nod to InterAct’s last production, the likeable “Down Past Passyunk”) and adapting American ways to be more Asian as a form of welcome.
The production does not register satirical vibes, so Brendan’s plan becomes one more labored and dreadful joke that doesn’t work and seems absurd.
“Ritu Comes Home” is filled with inconsistencies and mistakes a more knowledgeable playwright than Gil-Sheridan would not make.
Seth Rozin doesn’t help by making every reaction loud and oversized. We hear Ritu’s thoughts, but Brendan, Jason, and Yesenia can’t because they’re in Hindi or whatever language is spoken in Bangladesh. Gil-Sheridan makes a joke of the ongoing misinterpretation, but he never motivates any of the characters to try to correct the disconnect and find a way to communicate with Ritu. She, on the other hand, likes the power in being able to say what she likes without having to worry about others’ feelings or reactions.
The portrait of Ritu, as written by Gil-Sheridan, is just as riddled with illogic as the characters of Brendan, Jason, Yesenia, and Akash, Ritu’s fiancé who comes from Bangladesh to complicate matters further.
Nothing is what it seems in “Ritu Comes Home,” and that would be fine, another source of comedy, if Gil-Sheridan knew how to write a solid, sequential play instead of unloading a parcel of ideas that could go any which way and sprawl until “Ritu Comes Home” has no compass at all.
A surprise involving Akash is funny, but by the time it occurs, you are too fed up with Gil-Sheridan’s play to appreciate he saved a good touch for near the finale.
Rozin’s production moves along briskly, but it is also too broad and too exaggerated in terms of Brendan and Jason’s behavior, Yesenia’s freedom that borders on intrusion, and the treatment of Ritu.
The actors, though they have twaddle to wade through, do a fine job in creating and holding their characters, such as they are.
Jered McLenigan may go way too far over the top to portray the queeny twink Brendan is, but his overdoing is played well. Because every character is drawn overly large, I blame Rozin and Gil-Sheridan for the tastelessness of McLenigan’s take on a gay character, however swishy and rooted in the clichés of pre-Stonewall bars. (Talk about offensive!)
McLenigan did all that was asked of him with his usual adroitness. It is not his fault if his performance crossed boundaries that are worthy of protest.
David Bardeen, cast as the Fred Flintstone or Ralph Kramden, but upper class, of the pair, fares better with his outsized performance. His horror when he sees unusual material on his $10,000 carpet, and at other times, is understandable if overplayed.
Rebecca Khalil provides the one bit of leavening as Ritu. Khalil shows her character to be more worldly and more typical of American teens than Brendan or Jason realize. The sequences in which Ritu revels in Western decadence while the guys think she is an Asian hothouse flower are among the few effective passages in Rozin’s production.
Annie Henk is natural as Yesenia. Though what Gil-Sheridan has Yesenia say can be outrageous or meant to enforce political correctness, Henk’s character is the only one who you’re likely to encounter in this world. Henk, more than Yesenia, has a genuine core to her. You miss Yesenia when she’s not on stage, mainly because she tones down the false intensity Rozin encourages McLenigan and Bardeen to foment.
Amar Srivastava is elegant as Akash, who like Ritu, immediately sees the difference between life in Lower Merion and life in Bangladesh and chooses the former without question or hesitation.
The real touches Gil-Sheridan attempted to provide disturbed me even more than the literal magic he employs to advance his plot.
Borrowing from Latin American tradition, Gil-Sheridan uses magical realism. In a better production of a better play, his invention may have seemed more charming or witty. In “Ritu Comes Home,” it merely seems convenient, an expedient solution to a problem Gil-Martin did not know how to solve dramatically or realistically.
The single flawless element in Rozin’s production is the set by Roman Tatarowicz that hits every target in terms of the exact colors, accents, furnishings, decorations, and accessories Jason might choose for his showplace.
One good piece of news is Rozin’s production breezes by and is carried by the occasional sharp line or acting choice. “Ritu Comes Home” irritates with its third-rateness as a play and a concept more than it bores.
In fact, I was never bored. McLenigan, Bardeen, and company prevented that, but I was often annoyed. Seeing “Ritu Comes Homes” is like sitting in a traffic jam you accept for what it is but get frustrated that you can’t change or fix.
“Ritu Comes Home,” produced by InterAct Theatre, runs though Sunday, June 22 at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $32 with discounts available for seniors and students. They can be obtained by calling 215-568-8079 or by going online to www.interacttheatre.org.