Domestic industrial jobs heading abroad. Overseas competitors getting rich with our technology. America's middle class going to hell as energy costs rise and financiers game the system. A Republican president who responds with a nonsensical military adventure. Sound familiar? Of course it does. I'm talking about the Reagan recession of the 1980s.
Oh, and the Bush recession of the 2000s, too.
The two downturns have one other thing in common: heavy surges in nativism. On the principle that every good crisis deserves a villain, we responded to both by finding foreigners to blame. In the 80s, Japanese carmakers drew the heat for kicking Detroit butt. (You just didn't drive a Toyota through certain parts of the country back then.) Now Indian call centers symbolize all that ails us. The cheery, clueless IT guy/bank rep/salesperson/bill collector with the telltale South Asian accent is an emblem of our bewilderment.
If Anupama Chandrasekhar's Disconnect does anything worthwhile, it demonstrates that the bewilderment goes both ways. Set in the collections department of a call center in Chennai, India, this problematic 2010 play looks at the alienation, disorientation, and all-around psychic pain experienced by a group of employees whose job it is to get deadbeat American debtors to pay up.
It's 2009, the U.S. economy is cratering, and the deadbeats runneth over. Giri, Vidya, and Roshan are twentysomething locals manning the phones for an American-owned company that serves creditors. People in other parts of the building "welcome" customers into the world of plastic money or help them with their complaints, but these three work in the office of last resort—the place to which accounts get referred when the clients have started screening their calls.
It's a surreal environment. The trio focus on Illinois, and so that's what their floor is called. Because of the 11-and-a-half-hour time differential between the midwest and the subcontinent, they work at night. Because of the cultural differential between modern and traditional India, the wired, glass-walled building in which they spend those nights is surrounded by mountains of garbage. They live on coffee and Coke, see almost no one but one another, and talk to almost no one but desperate souls—by phone, and in English. Inasmuch as they've been trained to pass themselves off as Americans, they occupy an imaginative geography in which, say, the Sears Tower (they're careful not to call it "Willis") is part of their own world. Vidya's work name is Vicki Lewis, Giri's is Gary Evans, and Roshan's is Ross Adams.
Roshan/Ross is the temperamental office star. The others do the job, but he succeeds spectacularly by making a connection with his clients that goes well beyond mere business. Of course, there's a price to be paid for that; Disconnect is about what happens to him as he sinks deeper and deeper into the virtual reality of the Illinois floor.
Or that's what it should be about, anyway. The sharpest, most interesting—most essential—passages of Disconnect are the ones that deal with Ross's absorption into his Skype-enabled fantasy. At times Chandrasekhar seems to know that, but all too often she seems to forget. She's chosen, for instance, to open the play with a scene in which two characters—middle-aged Avinash, who will end up supervising the Illinois floor, and his boss, Jyothi—argue about Avinash's future with the company. I can see why Chandrasekhar may be loath to part with this bit: it does a funny, telling job of anatomizing the clash between Jyothi's Westernized, youth-centric corporate vibe and Avinash's more traditional sensibilities. And yet the scene is counterproductive in that it sets us up for the wrong story. Avinash and Jyothi turn out to be subsidiary characters; their argument may touch on important issues, but it doesn't signify dramatically. Likewise, Chandrasekhar gives us a Glengarry Glen Ross-esque subplot about meeting production goals (there's even a variation on Glengarry's concern with good and bad leads) that serves no real purpose in the long run. Talk about bewilderment.
Ann Filmer's staging for Victory Gardens Theater is often engaging. Arya Daire is pretty hilarious as Jyothi, whose alternations between giggly faux childishness and hard-nosed pragmatism remind me of Girls. Behzad Dabu is disarming as would-be player Giri. And Debargo Sanyal gives a strange but affecting performance as increasingly frenetic, increasingly convinced, increasingly lost Ross. None of this, however, solves the problem of a script that goes in and out of focus like—well, pick your own digital communications metaphor.