Hello, Old Cock! East Is East Is Neither Barmy nor Belkuf

The English and Irish imports must be confusing someone, apart from me. It’s now the fashion for a Playbill insert to provide a glossary of slang so we can all understand what’s going on. We must learn, in other words, how to speak the common language that divides us.

It is therefore advisable to turn up early so that you can commit to memory such words as snog (kiss), butties (butter sandwiches) and barmy (crazy). Thus: “Fancy a snog and a butty, you barmy bugger?” To which the only dignified response would be: “Get stuffed, you stupy pillock.” (“Screw you, you stupid idiot.”)

It can get a little complicated at times. Cock, for example, can be a term of endearment. Hence, “Hello, old cock! Me puther gave me a right bollicking just because I said to the poindexter he should shut his gob.” (“Hello there! My brother beat me up good for telling the nerd to shut his mouth.”) “Tickle-tackle,” you’ll be glad to learn, can mean sex, foreskin or penis. But let’s not go into tickle-tackle now.

East Is East , Ayub Khan-Din’s likable saga of cultural wars within an Anglo-Pakistani family, has its own glossary of English slang. The play is set in the early 1970′s in Salford (the North of England birthplace, incidentally, of Albert Finney and Alistair Cooke, and I felt I could speak the language, as I grew up two minutes away from Salford. Still, “Blenchoud badahmarsh” (very bad person) was new to me. So, too, “belkuf” (crazy), “pallaise” (bed), and “swarfega” (disinfectant). The English language is alive and changing! But “git”-not “get”-is slang for idiot; and I always thought that “jammy” meant lucky, not dirty. The glossary must have been compiled before “shag” became part of the American language.

That said, these glossaries are peculiar and, I think, unnecessary. Language, particularly in theater, makes an emotional connection. We can understand what’s going on well enough. If not, we would need a simultaneous translation for much of Shakespeare. Dialect is a different question. I sometimes have a problem with Irish. The flat vowels of the Northern English-not to be confused with singsong nasal Liverpudlian-signal a plain-speaking earthiness that’s accessible to Americans. The East Is East cast speaks Salford like natives.

But, speaking plainly, Mr. Khan-Din’s play is the problem, not the language, least of all the excellent cast. This is a first play-and that backhanded thing, “promising”-but East Is East is a domestic drama that can’t make up its mind whether to be a tragedy or a farce.

Perhaps that’s the way with all divided families. But Mr. Khan-Din, an actor for the past 15 years, lets it show a little too much. The production by Scott Elliott of the New Group (in partnership with the Manhattan Theater Club) comes to New York via the Royal Court Theater in London. We would therefore expect it to be rooted in social realism, and it is. The smell of cooking from the onstage kitchen of a Pakistani chip shop-a “chippie”-links backward in Royal Court time to the 1960′s plays of Arnold Wesker a generation ago. Only the menu has changed: chicken tandoori and chips, as opposed to chips with everything.

The dramatist of East Is East , the son of a Pakistani immigrant father and an English mother, makes no secret of the play’s autobiographical influence. George Khan (Edward A. Hajj in his stage debut) is the Pakistani-born patriarch of the play-a bully and wife-beater who still upholds strict Muslim traditions, including arranged marriages. His worn-out working-class wife Ella (a fine performance from Jenny Sterlin) keeps the uneasy peace between the tyrannical, compromised father and his seven English-born children.

A serious play, then-or so it would promise-about very important issues: growing up Pakistani-English in a racist country; assimilation versus separatism; the dangers of Western culture-or nonculture-versus the pull and memory of traditional Islam.

But what we receive is something less: a slice of life, the unfocused drift of a working-class TV soap. “You want a cuppa tea. It’s just brewed,” Ella says to her sister Annie, who’s a neighbor. “Go on then. Just a quick one …” Mr. Khan-Din drifts into melodrama, too, or labels his themes too mechanically. He is at his best in the scenes of adolescent angst and rebellion in which East Is East flickers with the promise of a mature playwright, and the drama becomes a heartfelt exploration of belonging. To what? To tyrannical fathers, to different cultures, to country.

But the evening ends on an easy note of low farce, and mere sentimentality. For myself, I would have been more interested in Ayub Khan-Din’s second play. Too much is expected of prestigious British imports. In the context of the Royal Court Theater-where East Is East originated-Mr. Khan-Din’s theater debut would have been only one of about 20 new plays at the Royal Court that year (with approaching 40 new dramatists under commission). The emphasis-and the expectations-are different in London, and not all British imports to New York are equal.

The revival of Albert Innaurato’s 1977 hit comedy of slob life, Gemini , is the second peculiar choice of the new Second Stage Theater on 43rd Street. (The first was its inaugural production, the revival of That Championship Season .) What are they doing?

No doubt in its 70′s heyday, the real, live blue-collar characters and warring white trash on gloriously vulgar display in Gemini amused the middle classes like a peep show for tourists. But time, and Jerry Springer, has caught up with it.

Why revive Gemini ? Its crapper humor for the educated isn’t hip; its jokes about kikes, retards, epileptics and various minorities are at the low end of the spectrum. Women fare even worse. Sample: “Take it from me. Heat up the old Coke bottle ‘cos men ain’t worth shit.” The “satire” of Harvard-educated WASPs only drags. The coming out of the young gay hero is no surprise. Considering the lad’s maladjusted family, being gay is the least of his problems.

We look at all the screaming, foul-mouthed characters on stage and think: “Oh, behave.” Gemini , loudly directed by Mark Brokaw, who usually knows far better, wasn’t always well acted. It has now closed.