Stage Door Review 2023

Behind the Moon

Tuesday, March 7, 2023


by Anosh Irani, directed by Richard Rose

Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, Toronto

March 2-19, 2023

Ayub: “There’s just no clarity anymore”

Anosh Irani’s new play Behind the Moon, now playing at the Tarragon Theatre, has the misfortune to appear only three months after the far more effective our place by Kanika Ambrose on the same subject. Both are set in restaurants in strip malls – a Mughlai restaurant in Irani, a Caribbean restaurant in Ambrose – and both concern the plight [SPOILER ALERT] of undocumented workers in Canada. The great difference between the two plays is that Ambrose reveals her characters’ status early in her play whereas Irani, teasingly, saves the full revelation of his character’s status until near the end. While the performances in Behind the Moon are terrific, Irani’s big reveal comes as nothing at all, especially to anyone who has seen Ambrose’s play.

Irani begins Behind the Moon with a mysterious encounter. A young man Ayub is busily, almost obsessively cleaning the glass food shields protecting his steamer trays in The Mughlai Moon when Jalal, an older man in some distress arrives demanding food. Though the till is closed, Ayub finally gives in to Jalal’s urgent entreaties and gives him butter chicken to take away for free. I don’t suggest that Irani has seen Ambrose’s play, but it is an unfortunate coincidence that both plays feature a client who comes after closing to a strip mall restaurant and discovers that his server is an undocumented worker.

The next scene is between Ayub and the owner of the restaurant Qadir Bhai, who is excited that he will soon be opening a third location, this time in Montreal. He allows Ayub to dream of being transferred there, but insists that Ayub keep cleaning because he wants to be able to see his face in the tile floor.

The rest of Act 1 alternates between visits from Jalal and visits from Qadir. Jalal again comes asking for food when the restaurant is closed. Qadir again tempts Ayub with future prospects, but all Ayub wants is to see his wife and child again back home after spending four years in Canada. But instead of money or an air ticket, Qadir gives Ayub a used cellphone and says now Ayub can see his family any time we wants.

As in a medieval morality play, Irani has placed Ayub between a good person whom Ayub does not respect and a bad person whom Ayub does respect and even fears. By the end of Act 1 Irani leads us to believe that the play is moving into some form of magic realism. Upon Jalal’s final exit in the act, he exclaims enigmatically, “I am the one who makes the tree shake”. It would not be out of place to think that Irani should write in the mode of magic realism since his last play at the Tarragon, Buffoon in 2019, was written in exactly that style. Indeed, Irani does not wholly reject magic realism in Behind the Moon since he suggests at the end that Ayub is paradoxically transformed into exactly the type of vermin his cleaning is meant to eradicate.

Anyone with a background in mythology will be led to believe that Ayub’s grudging kindness to the shabby Jalal has some parallel to stories about theoxenia, i.e., when gods in disguise, like Hermes and Zeus or like Krishna and Arjuna, visit a poor man to test his hospitality and reward him for his hospitality. From the misery that Ayub expresses at the very end of Act 1 we assume will be rewarded in some way.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The suggestions that the play is headed in a non-realist direction are misleading. Just as Irani saved his explanation for the circumstances of Buffoon until the very end, so here he does the same, his big reveal in Behind the Moon being, as we guessed, that Ayub is ... an undocumented worker. The question is why Irani should weave such mystery around a subject that is all too real. In fact, as in Ambrose’s our place, it is a subject that should be brought into the light and examined for all the harm it causes.

Irani’s strategy is to confront us in Act 1 with scenes that could be part of an absurdist comedy. Ayub’s apparent OCD regarding the cleanliness of the restaurant, Jalal’s bizarre desire to have butter chicken on that one particular night even when Ayub recommends against it, Qadir’s holding out of carrots to Ayub only to withdrawn them again – all these are played by the cast and directed by Richard Rose as comic.

Two notes in Act 1, however, work against this comic tone. One is the fact that Qadir is in possession of Ayub’s passport. The other is that the distress Ayub expresses at the end of Act 1 carries too much the tone of authentic pain to be funny. A major negative effect of Irani’s holding back so much information by which to judge the events of Act 1, that he does not involve us in the characters and therefore generates little motivation for an audience to return for Act 2.

As we eventually find out, Irani’s plan for Act 2 is to uncover the tragedy that lies underneath the veneer of comedy he established in Act 1. Annoyingly, much of the audience did not perceive this change of tone on opening night and continued to react to the most serious scenes as if the play were still meant to be funny. This fact only calls into question Irani’s ploy concerning the subject.

Labour trafficking is not funny and we should not even be allowed to misperceive it as funny. Jalal’s story that explains his odd behaviour toward Ayub is downright tragic, and again it is peculiar to say the least that Irani should first want us to see Jalal’s behaviour as absurd. Yet, even in Act 2 when we know the unhappy circumstances of Ayub and Jalal’s lives, Irani still feeds in jokes as if to lighten the atmosphere.

Despite the overall inappropriateness of Irani’s approach toward his subject, the cast gives absolutely solid performances. Principal among these is that of Ali Kazmi as Ayub. Anyone who saw Kazmi as Dr. Astrov in the Crow’s Theatre production of Uncle Vanya last year will find Kazmi literally unrecognizable as Ayub. On the one hand, losing the stylish beard and moustache gives Kazmi a very different appearance. On the other, it is hard to believe that the same actor who played the intensely romantic and egocentric Astrov is the same person playing the awkward and cowering Ayub. Initially we don’t know why Ayub is so hostile to strangers and fawns so on the owner Qadir, but Kazmi presents us with an unhappy man on the brink of distress, an unhappiness that has already become depression and is ready to fall into madness. It a masterful performance that reveals Kazmi’s amazing range as an actor.

Husein Madhavji is well cast as Jalal. Like Ayub, Irani keeps Jalal’s motivations hidden for the first act. Jalal is another man in distress but Madhavji plays his unhappiness in a completely different manner than does Kazmi. Madhavji’s distress is hectic as if he were possessed by an inner demon from whose hold he can’t rid himself. Even when Jalal shows kindness to Ayub it is as if he is being controlled by a will not his own. If Irani had wished to push the action into the realm of magic realism, Madhavji has such presence that one could easily imagine him as a god or spirit in disguise.

In contrast to Ayub or Jalal, the Qadir Bhai of Vik Sahay is an insidious portrait of a man in complete control. In Qadir’s first few encounters with Ayub he seems to take a friendly and even fatherly stance toward Ayub. Gradually, however, Sahay reveals through the sudden dropping of his friendly tone that his kindness toward Ayub is calculated to disarm any criticism. How Ayub has managed not to see through Qadir’s act for four years is difficult to imagine, since we see through it in less than an hour. When Qadir is finally exposed as the villain he is the effect is frightening since we don’t know what else this master of deception is capable of.

There is a minor sign that the production has not been fully thought through. Qadir repeatedly tells Ayub to polish the floor tiles until he can see his face in them. Set designer Michelle Tracey has given the set matte finish tiles that no amount of scrubbing will ever make shiny. Either this is meant as an impossible task that Qadir gives Ayub to complete or Tracey did not read the script and Rose did not recognize the flaw. It would have been so easy to use shiny white tiles instead of matte, earthen-coloured tiles that I have to think it is an error.

One can certainly admire Behind the Moon for its fine acting, but Irani coyness about such an important subject is annoying. Why should an author obscurantize labour trafficking and the disruption, pain and sadness that it causes just for the sake of a pointless dramatic effect?

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ali Kazmi as Ayub and Husein Madhavji as Jalal; Vik Sahay as Qadir Bhai and Ali Kazmi as Ayub. © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.

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