Sunday, December 5, 2010

PSAT's "Dial 'M' for Marriage" - Comedy Theater Review

In a promotional video posted on the Princeton homepage, Myra Gupta ’12, co-president of Princeton South Asian Theatrics, describes reading about a murder at an Indian wedding over the summer and being inspired to write a play about it. The result is “Dial ‘M’ for Marriage,” a South Asian whodunit that is PSAT’s latest amusing original comedy.

The play opens at a lavish puja celebrating the impending marriage of two Princetonians who met as TA (Kashyap Rajagopal ’14) and student (Rachita Jain ’14) in a differential equations course. The local Panit played by Vikram Rao ’11 is officiating the ceremony when, after a few spastic convulsions, he abruptly drops dead, prompting a labyrinth of investigation and intrigue that occupies the production’s remaining two hours.

It is unfortunate that Rao, one of the company’s strongest actors, expires less than five minutes after the curtain goes up, but he makes the most of his brief appearance. PSAT has a strong tradition of showcasing the talents of performers not otherwise active in the Princeton theater scene, and “Dial ‘M’ for Marriage” is no exception in this regard. The freshman leads both turn in solid performances, competently handling a good deal of responsibility for first-timers. Brandon Bark ’13 is effective if a bit clichéd in his performance as the American detective called in by the bride’s family to investigate Rao’s untimely demise. Several cast members, including Sanchali Pal ’12 as the maid Pai and Joey Barnett ’12 as the heartthrob wedding planner Alejandro, turn in especially strong comic performances. Overall, the acting is adequate but unspectacular, appropriate for PSAT’s distinctive brand of off-beat and unvarnished (in the best way) farce. As usual, the accents are great.

PSAT shows, with their de-emphasis on realism and focus on creating an intimate, participatory theater experience for the audience, always play particularly well in blackboxes. The Frist Film and Performance Theater, where “Dial ‘M’ for Marriage” is being staged, feels almost too conventional and impersonal for PSAT. The greater resources available in Frist do allow for relatively crisp technical work and transitions, an important consideration for keeping up the energy of this production. Since this review is based on the dress rehearsal, I was not able to evaluate how heckles from the audience, which usually add significant vitality (and a lot of laughs) to PSAT’s shows, augmented “Dial ‘M’ for Marriage.”

PSAT deserves credit for the ambitious agenda of penning two full-length original plays each year. The writing in “Dial ‘M’ for Marriage” is generally strong, keeping a sprawling plot focused and moving forward, a few slow scenes notwithstanding. With their somewhat limited repertoire of topics, PSAT faces the additional challenge of striking a balance between recycling effective old material and keeping jokes and plotlines fresh. “Dial ‘M’ for Marriage,” which, in contrast to several recent PSAT productions, is not set at Princeton, accomplishes this well. As noted in the same video by Anjali Bisaria ’12, the troupe’s other co-President, structuring a play around an Indian wedding makes a wide range of material—from elaborate rituals and meals to crazy distant relatives brought together—available as comic fodder, all of which gets exploited effectively in the play.

In my last review for The Daily Princetonian, of the Program in Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person Of Setzuan,” I wrote about the difficulty of comparing a piece that received ample professional support to the work of an average campus theater group. For very different reasons, PSAT’s plays are also difficult to evaluate in relation to other Princeton performances. In the actors it features, the issues and perspectives it considers, and its irreverent approach to theater, PSAT is really unlike any other group on campus. I consistently find its work entertaining and valuable, and for that I’m willing to overlook the occasional flubbed line or sloppy acting.

3 Paws

Pros: Solid original comedy based on a cool premise.

Cons: Limited range in the acting.

--Joseph Dexter '13

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