Divas spark ‘Two Wives’ premiere
Leslie Harrell Dillen employs an intriguing premise for her latest play, “Two Wives in India,’’ receiving a polished premiere under M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. A first wife and her successor — Becca and Mary Jo, respectively — have been invited to India to celebrate the engagement of Becca’s daughter, Emily. The expected friction sets in as soon as the two alight from their flight, and frazzled Mary Jo (Karen MacDonald) remarks that Becca (Amelia Broome) no doubt had an easier time of it, flying first class.
The women couldn’t be more dissimilar. Chic, cosmopolitan Becca is a successful New York designer. Mary Jo is a gushy Midwestern naïf (a MacDonald specialty) who, now that she’s newly widowed, harbors dreams of becoming a romance novelist. Neither is at all happy being thrust into the company of the other.
It’s unclear whom we’re meant to root for. Becca just might be a closet racist: She blames Mary Jo for filling Emily’s head with fanciful romantic notions, prompting her to fall in love with the “first turban’’ she saw (never mind that the brain within was educated at Harvard). Mary Jo, on the other hand, has peculiar notions about stepmotherly rights. Countering the traditional protocol upheld by their extremely gracious and patient Indian hosts (Robert Saoud and Asa Bhuiyan), Mary Jo insists that she has as much right as Becca to stand by Emily’s side during the engagement ceremony. Failing that, she feels that her husband’s cremains — which she carts about in her purse and chats with, to Becca’s extreme mortification — deserve a place of honor. In essence, both Becca and Mary Jo are rather ugly, insensitive Americans.
The playwright intentionally excludes Emily — the object of Becca and Mary Jo’s struggle for supremacy — from the action. It’s a valid choice, but one that vitiates the play’s emotional potential. The turmoil that Emily would no doubt be undergoing if she weren’t constantly traipsing off somewhere with her new relatives is instead shunted onto her fiance, Jaskanvar (the excellent, soulful-eyed Ben Martin), who struggles under the burden of “Too many mothers! My own mother is enough.’’
It’s similarly a questionable move to have Emily’s late father, Sam, appear in the flesh (Saoud, sans turban). The apparition — revealed to both wives — tips the genre into magical realism and opens the door to sentimentality.
Over the course of two acts in two hours, the scenery may change (Jon Savage’s fluid set, consisting primarily of colorful fabric streamers, transports us effortlessly about the country, from Delhi to Agra), but the wheels begin to grind. There are a few too many hair-raising “car rides’’ (indicated by passengers lurching and shrieking behind a headlight employed as steering wheel) and too many scenes that culminate in a sputter of co-motherly exasperation.
The great pleasure of this production is the opportunity to see two reigning Boston divas (the veteran MacDonald and Broome, a relatively new transplant) square off against each other. Despite the lightweight material and a rickety script, they crackle and ignite.
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at email@example.com.