How marvelous, at the end of the theater season, to find a gem like "Rafta, Rafta ..." lying in wait. The New Group's production of Ayub Khan-Din's Olivier Award-winner from last year is a near-perfect comedy of family life, where the belly laughs come from painfully honest observations about the trials and tribulations of living under the same roof.
In "Rafta, Rafta," family togetherness is even more of a strain than usual, since one of the families's two sons has just brought his bride home to live in his boyhood bedroom. On his wedding night, on top of the usual anxieties, the groom has to contend with thin walls — his parents next door, the toilet noises from down the hall. And that's only the beginning.
"Rafta, Rafta" began life in 1963 as a Bill Naughton comedy called "All in Good Time," populated by working-class Lancashire folk. Mr. Khan-Din's update turns the characters into British Indians — the parents émigrés, the children born in England. The result is a deeply-layered emotional landscape, shaped by culture, class attitudes, and generational differences about assimilation. In the end, though, what is striking about "Rafta, Rafta" is the universality of its characters — the parents struggling to let go of their offspring, the young couple in desperate need of privacy.
The action unfolds on a stunning two-story dollhouse-like set (by Derek McLane), decorated by a family with modest means and an appetite for color and glitter. The set allows us to simultaneously follow action in the kitchen and dining room, as well as the parents' bedroom and the newlyweds' bedroom. Alas, for poor Atul (Manish Dayal) and Vina (Reshma Shetty, a real firecracker), there isn't much action going on in the newlyweds' room. Maybe it's the lack of privacy, maybe it's something else, but Atul's having trouble consummating his marriage — and Vina's getting impatient.
It's a broad comic setup, in many ways reminiscent of Hollywood comedies such as "Meet the Parents." On Atul's wedding night, the revelry devolves into a tense arm-wrestling match between the groom and his drunken father, Eeshwar (a memorable Ranjit Chowdry), with the assembled guests shouting their names. (Atul's mother yells, "Go on, son! Finish him off!") And there are plenty of gags about sex (or the lack thereof).
But what makes "Rafta, Rafta" so much richer than standard movie fare is that it really feels like going home to a family and living among them. Scott Elliott, who has shown a gift for ensemble work with his revivals of Mike Leigh plays, directs these fine players with a sure and unhurried hand. They really seem like two families (despite a mix of races and accents). You feel as if somehow, you've snuck into the living room, an extra guest at the wedding party.
Since these aren't the sort of families that tiptoe around delicate subjects, plenty of sparks fly. Atul's mother Lopa (the absolutely natural Sakina Jaffrey) is well aware of her husband's perverse need to compete with his son, and she doesn't hesitate to tell either one of them to shut up. The bride's parents (Laxman Patel and Sarita Choudhury, in fine performances) are equally blunt — when their daughter confides in them about her bedroom problems, they promptly convene a conference with Atul's parents.
This is but one of the ways that "Rafta, Rafta" presents the tensions between the two generations — the one that came from the village, raised with a respect for water buffaloes and no sense of family boundaries, and the one raised in England, a generation with BlackBerrys and a sharp desire for privacy. Atul's father, who has worked in the same factory his entire adult life, can't understand why his 21-year-old son, a movie theater projectionist, is already on his sixth job — or why he needs more than a steady salary to be satisfied by a job. Nor can he quite accept his son's affection for Western classical music, or his refusal to participate in some of the old Indian customs.
Atul's mother Lopa, on the other hand, has a remarkable sensitivity to the needs of the next generation, and her delicate negotiations between husband and son furnish an emotionally moving counterpoint to the abundant laughs.
Yet the play's poignant moments remain firmly rooted in the mundane detail of everyday life — the plates scraped into the trash can, the television taken to the repair shop, the allocation of each morning's hot water. (The well-chosen costumes, by Theresa Squire, and the lifelike lighting, by Jason Lyons, add to the naturalistic effect.)
It would be easy for "Rafta, Rafta" to veer into either pathos or silliness. But Mr. Khan-Din, best known for writing "East is East," refuses both invitations. Instead he creates something with the texture of everyday life, but heightened — and Mr. Elliott and the universally excellent ensemble members follow his lead. As a result, "Rafta, Rafta" is that rare play that takes you fully inside another family. Here the bonds of love have been warped by too much history, too much closeness, differing sense of duty. Yet they are wondrously capable of renewal.
Until June 7 (410 W 42nd St., between Ninth and Tenth avenues, 212-279-4200).