Review: "The Men in White" at the Factory Theatre

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Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Critic

Playwright Anosh Irani speaks about the wounds of one world opening in another world in the Program Notes for the Toronto premiere of The Men in White. I hadn’t even considered this harsh reality until I had seen the final preview performance at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. I never lost sight of just how wounded these characters truly are. In this play, the ties that bind the modern immigrant experience to Canada become disarmingly unravelled in facing a new life. I left at the end pondering if this is the new Canada, not only for the immigrant but also for all of us.

We are introduced to two worlds colliding: Baba’s Chicken Cutting Centre in a tough Muslim neighbourhood of Dongri, Mumbai stage right, and the locker room of the novice West Coast Cricket Club in Vancouver stage left. Wire mesh behind the set made me feel enclosed in a cage. On the back wall is the projection of a world geographical world which lets the audience know where the scene takes place. Stage right contains small podiums which, when boxed together, become the counter in Baba’s store. We see chickens in each of these podiums with appropriate sound effects to let us know. Far stage left is a bench with a seating area. Cricket helmets hang on the back wall.

The unifying link between both worlds is the cricket game. Abdul’s (Gugun Deep Singh) amateur Vancouver cricket team (the men in white) wants to end its’ consistent losing streak by recruiting his younger brother, Hasan (a boyishly charming performance by Chanakya Mukherjee) to play. To bring Hasan to Canada from Mumbai will cause a great deal of problems (the authorities for one) and not everyone on the team believes it is worth the cost of a plane ticket. Discussion in the locker room leads to dire confrontations and horrible accusations of prejudice and racism.

I’m thankful that playwright Mr. Irani and director Philip Akin have cleverly woven bits of opening humour into the story that grabbed my attention. The pacing was a tad hesitant for a few moments at the opening, but it found its mark quickly and from there I was hooked. Huse Madhavji is an irascible, smart ass, but lovable Baba who reads his newspaper and offers what he considers wise cracking bits of advice to Hasan. Hasan only wants a better life for himself and believes he can start by turning his infatuation with local girl Haseena (a confident Tahirih Vejdani) into something more.  The balance of humour and poignancy in the scenes between Madhavji, Muukherjee and Mejdani worked nicely for me.

The Factory press release used the term ‘feisty misfits’, and I found this term rather appropriate to describe the strong ensemble work from the cricket players. There is the kind hearted, but sometimes dimwitted Sam (an amiable John Chou), a terrible cricket player as pointed out to him by Abdul. Farid Yazdani is Ram, the lonely ‘lothario’ of the team and Mr. Yazdani delivers a confident performance. Without spoiling too much of the plot, a robust Cyrus Faird made me pay attention to him (and unnervingly watch his responses) as the discussion around bringing Hasan to Canada grows heated. As Randy, Sugith Varughese highlights the importance of the unifying link of the play in the video why they play the sport of cricket.

For me, The Men in White cuts right to the heart of the wounds of the modern immigrant experience to Canada. Like the Shakespearean tragedy, the play adroitly combines humour to set the audience up for the next high dramatic moment. One moment for me occurred when Mr. Deep Singh, as Abdul, shares with the audience in the second act the conflicting emotions he felt when he left his brother Hasan and Baba to travel to Canada. Mr. Deep Singh’s resonating voice combined with the sadness in his eyes was a dynamic moment for me.

The play is both compelling and fascinating to watch. For me, this strong cast under Mr. Irani’s compassionate writing and Mr. Akin’s sympathetic direction has tenderly touched the human spirit and deeply hurt it as well through the issues of Islamaphobia and racial violence keenly imbued throughout the text.

The Men in White continues to November 4, 2018 at the Factory Theatre, Mainspace Theatre (upstairs), 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto. For further information, call (416) 504-9971 or visit www.factorytheatre.ca for further information.

Photo of left to right:  Cyrus Faird, Farid Yazdani, John Chou, Sugith Varughese and Gugun Deep Singh by Joseph Michael Photography

A Factory production with direction by Philip Akin.

The production runs approximately two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.