Woolly Mammoth’s ‘Public Obscenities’ is long on insight. Also, long.

Woolly Mammoth’s ‘Public Obscenities’ is long on insight. Also, long.

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“Painstaking” may not be the adjective you’d most want to read at the start of a theater review, but it’s the one that comes to mind again and again while watching playwright-director Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s languidly paced Indian drama, “Public Obscenities.” And believe me, you have plenty of time to come up with a descriptive word for a play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre that clocks in at nearly 3½ hours.

Some of “Public Obscenities” is remarkable under Chowdhury’s, well, painstaking direction. Still, in training a patient, observational eye on daily life, a method often better suited to documentary films, Chowdhury slows the dramatic tempo to a crawl. It’s never particularly helpful to lose your audience in hyper-realistic detail, no matter how well composed: Do we need, for instance, several extended scenes of a sexually repressed older man at a computer, playing a suggestive online game with a woman in Minnesota?

That documentary impulse informs Chowdhury’s narrative as well. “Public Obscenities” is the story of a visit to his family in Kolkata by an American graduate student, Choton (Abrar Haque) and his film-techie boyfriend, Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell), to aid in Choton’s research into India’s queer and trans culture. Complicating the investigation is the tense relationship between Choton and Raheem, friction that seems to be intensified by Choton’s discomfiting return to a country with both tolerant and antediluvian values about sexuality. Sort of like, uh, this country.

Some of the best aspects of “Public Obscenities” — a title derived from antiquated Indian laws about sexual expression — have to do with the interactions of Choton and Raheem. The latter is played by Powell with such placidly entertaining finesse, we’re compelled to watch his reactions for reality checks on our own. Raheem is the quieter but perhaps the more perceptive, of the two, and devoted to Choton. Yet he’s not unmindful of his partner’s low-threshhold triggers; an amusing early interlude revolves around Choton’s touchiness about being in bed with Raheem, under the stern-looking photo of his long-dead grandfather.

The larger portrait that the playwright draws, on set designer Peiyi Wong’s realistically detailed rendering of the family’s weathered home, is of India itself. Tradition and cosmopolitanism exist side by side under the roof of Choton’s aunt, Pishimoni (Gargi Mukherjee), who adores Choton’s boyfriend but for whom the caste system is alive and well: Golam Sarwar Harun resonantly plays Jitesh, the family retainer, who scurries from room to room, serving and cleaning, and only gets to reveal a more artistic dimension when prodded by a stranger (Tashnuva Anan) invited to the house for one of Choton’s thesis interviews.

The playwright’s cinematic template extends to actual cinema. “Public Obscenities” is in part an homage to India’s film culture. A dream related by Pishimoni’s husband, Pishe (Debashis Roy Chowdhury), will (much) later in the evening become an actual movie-within-the-play.

Choton’s project, requiring Raheem’s cinematographic skills, fixes a lens on the dynamic between Choton and Raheem, whose talents Choton never seems able to fully acknowledge. The unspoken acts of acceptance and forgiveness between the men give the play admirable heft.

End of carousel

The actors, provided ample time to be in these surroundings — the play was originally produced at New York’s Soho Rep, with the National Asian American Theatre Company — are convincingly of them. Haque conveys the aspirations of a young academic searching through his scholarship for a fuller sense of himself; Mukherjee imbues Pishimoni with matriarchal warmth, and Debashis Roy Chowdhury helpfully illuminates the nature of a man who’s dissolved into languor. Best of all is Powell, in a seemingly effortless embodiment of sensitivity and strength.

The journey that Choton and Raheem undertake has its absorbing qualities, and the playwright has a vision the theater needs to cultivate. To extend the moviemaking metaphor, though: A visit to the cutting room wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Public Obscenities, written and directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury. Set, Peiyi Wong; sound, Tei Blow; costumes, Enver Chakartash; lighting, Barbara Samuels; videos, Johnny Moreno. With NaFis. About 3 hours 25 minutes. Through Dec. 23 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. woollymammoth.net.

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