‘Monsoon Wedding’ Soars in its Understanding of Love & Marriage, Arranged or Otherwise

Mira Nair’s musical theater adaption of her much-loved film, Monsoon Wedding, is a headlong dash to the siren call of fun -- and then strangely, and rather beautifully, a rueful reflection on its costs.

That such delightful froth should achieve a striking level of philosophical depth is kind of amazing, especially as it does so by haphazardly dashing its way through the lives of a party’s worth of characters. This is a wedding tale that understands that marriage is not just the union of two people, but also a clash of civilizations, a covert war that scars with equal parts care, beauty, and betrayal.

To begin with, the battlefield is complex, full of double agents and counter-insurgencies. Lalit and Pimmi Verma have negotiated a favorable marriage for their daughter Aditi: Hemant Rai, the son of an American-Indian family of some distinction, who is successful, handsome, and taken with the idea of an arranged marriage. He sees it as a kind of go-for-broke embrace of tradition. Little does Hermant know that Aditi, the angelic centerpiece of his infatuation with the old ways, is engaged in a torrid affair with her married boss, a sleazy television anchor with some rather impractical ideas of transcontinental cheating.

Add the visiting Rai family, the Vermas' younger daughter and son, their niece, Ria, whom they’ve raised as one of their own, a slew of relatives both nasty and kind, and a wedding planner, Dubey, who eventually falls in love with Alice, the family housekeeper, and you’ve got yourself quite a happening. One might say that Lalit is not only the father of the bride, but also the father of chaos as well. He's a minor-league Prospero trying to work a little magic to secure his daughter’s happiness.

The first scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre's world-premiere production lays out all the characters in a rather perfunctory way. But after that, Nair and Sabrina Dhawan, adapting the musical’s book from her original screenplay, give us scene after scene in which the Verma family’s sense of fun masks the out-and-out conflict. And their commitment to fun is absolute and transformative.

When Ria warns Aditi that an extramarital affair isn’t the best way to start off an arranged marriage, or indeed any marriage at all, Aditi uncharitably snaps back that Ria is single and 30. Undaunted, Ria presses on, giving a frank assessment of her cousin’s moral and emotional failings. Without ever resolving their argument or apologizing in any way, the two young women slip into a delightful song and dance routine. As the music explodes out of the drama, their anger dissipates into the sheer pleasure of performance, revealing a love that is as tempered as it is unconditional.

And so, over and over, Nair demonstrates how familial love takes conflict and turns it into a raucous good time. When the soon-to-be-married and barely acquainted Aditi and Hemant get caught in a too-public argument, both families -- including the grandmothers -- sing the young couple a jazzy tune about the difficulties of marriage. The older generation’s nutty serenade is embarrassing; it's the kind of public disaster all children wish to avoid. But it’s also gracious and kind -- wisdom's gift to the young.

Mirroring all this wedding satire is the romance of the wedding planner and the family servant. Instead of the elaborate rituals of the arranged marriage, these two characters are left to their own devices. There is nothing to bring them together and so it feels that they can more easily be with each other. Yet, if Nair suggests that the moneyed Aditi and Hemant are caught in a daze of complex and confusing social expectations, the lack of expectations can be just as daunting.

When Dubay discovers that Alice is a Christian and will not convert, he renounces her. Nair and Dhawan might be following a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl script, but the loses-girl part comes off as rough and real. What Nair makes you understand is that none of this joy comes for free, that there is no escaping our differences, and that we will always be in conflict. It’s a bracing vision of the complexity of being alive to other people.

Nair's execution of that vision isn't perfect. Throughout the evening, you can feel the director struggling to stay the course. There are lapses: the first act drags towards the end, and the first couple of scenes of the second are flat. At times, Nair and her collaborators try to do too much. The full chorus reenactment of the partitioning of India and Pakistan is cumbersome and theme-driven. And the more traditional aspects of the Broadway musical feel tacked on, unnecessary to the realization of Nair’s more loose-leafed aesthetic.

Still, what you remember is a unique and stunning statement of joy, an embrace of the moment when these characters, in big and small ways, let it go and just take on the reckless abandon of fun. When you realize that this can only happen with the love of family, abandoning their own interests for those who’ve been entrusted to their care, you’ll never listen to a father and a mother, a brother and a sister, or an uncle and a niece sing together in quite the same way.

‘Monsoon Wedding’ runs through July 9, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information, click here.