Thursday, February 7, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Disconnect' at Victory Gardens Theater

Photo by Michael Brosilow
When the cable goes out and you begrudgingly dial your service-provider’s help line, who do you imagine is idling on the other end? My mind conjures up a grimy McCormick Place with seemingly endless, tidy rows of desks, and a chorus of popcorn office phones ringing off the hook. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new call-center-set play, “Disconnect,” receiving an invigorating American premiere at Victory Gardens Theater after a debut at London’s Royal Court Theatre—perhaps the UK’s most bountiful reservoir of revelatory new plays—could have quite lazily appeased American popular perception of overseas call centers. But it doesn’t.
This call center, BlitzTel in Chennai, India, has an ultra-modern stainless steel sheen (set by Grant Sabin), and its young, fashionably dressed employees look as though culled from a Groupon. Ross (Debargo Sanyal), Giri (Behzad Dabu) and Vidya (Minita Gandhi) frequently maintain that their daily toiling is a good job and they never outright question that assertion. These twentysomething workers also have some power in the grand scheme of call-center employees; they are the ones who make the calls, collecting debt for an American credit-card company. “Disconnect,” a renegade freight train driven by director Ann Filmer, explores what it means to be a citizen of a newly global society—spending double-digit hours on the job talking only to Americans, fooling the marks into thinking you’re on their soil.

Chandrasekhar resides in Chennai, but she studied at the University of Illinois, so the play deftly captures the duality of these recent-college-grads’ existence: The necessity of an American pretense—the nerdy Ross has completely abandoned his Indian accent in favor of a blandly American dialect—to satisfy customers who are bothered for no reason in particular, and the coalescence with their local personas. Where does one begin and the other end? While the playwright certainly has much to say about the quality of Indian work and cities—the office overlooks a large steaming garbage heap—what captivates is the story, a tale of clashing generations and a remarkably funny techno-thriller in which global identity becomes the chief catalyst.
The generational conflict comes in the form of Avinash (Kamal J. Hans), a forty-year-old supervisor whose collection numbers on the New York floor have been unsatisfactory. As a result, he’s transferred to a more easily manageable floor—appropriately enough, Illinois. Avinash supervises three collectors who share very little in common with him: Vidya, Giri and Ross, a “super collector.” The play has an intriguing overarching metaphor differentiating the young from the middle-aged: Avinash drinks coffee; his employees drink Coke.
Coke versus coffee is an apt metaphor in this instance. The young employees have an inkling-to-burning desire to act more like Americans. The craving is evident in their web habits, parties and expenditures. But no one wants to be someone else more than Ross, whose given name is actually Roshan. After a collection call to a woman who’s amassed twenty-three-thousand dollars in credit-card debt ends with a music-to-his-ears “thank you,” Ross develops an obsessive infatuation with her, and begins calling her constantly under the auspices of payment advisement.