As born-and-bred Americans, we always expect to fit in. Even in other countries, we assume that enough people will understand us that we can find what we want and get what we need.
The same isn't true for foreign nationals coming to the U.S. That point is driven home with a substantial amount of hilarity in Rajiv Joseph's Huck and Holden, now at Ensemble Theatre.
Joseph packs a lot of humor and insight into this deceptively light 75 minutes. And while there are a couple of rather ineffective side trips — including sexual instruction for, um, plowing the back forty — Ensemble has fashioned a well-acted and handsome staging for Joseph's affable yet intellectually curious script.
In addition to being a native Clevelander and a Cleveland Heights High School grad, the playwright has a father who was an Indian immigrant. This clearly influences his central character Navin, who is an innocent abroad in more ways than one.
This freshman engineering student from Calcutta is in his college's library, desperately seeking a book with the same title as the play. Turns out, he has misunderstood the assignment and must instead read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, then write a paper on those two iconic American characters, Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield.
He is helped by a student library assistant, Michelle, who is deep into her own research. Before Navin comes on the scene, she has stumbled on the Kama Sutra. So when he shows up and mentions he's from India, Michelle puts two and two together and, in her mind, her Kama gets tangled with his Sutra.
Trouble is, Navin is a novice. He explains to Michelle, a striking young African American woman, that he will be part of an arranged marriage back in India when his studies are complete. This doesn't deter Michelle for long, and she ends up inviting Navin to a party at her boyfriend Torry's frat house.
Written in short-burst scenes, H&H goes down easy, with Joseph providing plenty of laugh lines to lubricate the proceedings. Some of these are provided by way of an imagined friend, Singh, who was Navin's grade-school buddy and a "player" with the same perceived coolness as Holden.
As played by Ammen Suleiman (who is a near ringer for The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi), Singh is a little bird perched on Navin's trembling shoulder, helping him negotiate the unexpected relationship with Michelle. Soon, Navin's imaginary world expands to include a vision of his future Indian wife as a sexy Michelle, along with a cameo by the dark and violent Hindu goddess Kali.
The proceedings are enhanced by two strong leads who keep the sexual tension both real and amusing. Kristi Little is pert and inquisitive as she opens her eyes and mind to the sexual world out there. But when she flashes rage at Torry, you feel the heat in the last row.
Daniel Caraballo is simply adorable as Navin, never overdoing the nervous-kid shtick while finding small moments to turn simple actions into comic treats.
When Navin is caught innocently in Torry's bedroom, the scene devolves into an "ass waxing" tutorial. Even the best efforts of Kyle Carthens as the butt-buffing expert Torry can't make total sense of this excursion.
In a different way, the concluding scene with Kali seems an overreach. This is especially true with Neda Spears, as the goddess, defaulting to a too-easy sassy black woman vibe. Let's face it: This is a vengeful deity sporting a necklace of severed baby heads. Her character deserves something more than a cross between Wanda Sykes and Star Jones.
That said, director Celeste Cosentino gets almost everything else right with Joseph's skillfully crafted script. And the set, designed by Joseph Mitchell, establishes the perfect mood with bookshelves and tables angled crazily to represent Navin's off-kilter new environment.
Huck and Holden will leave you with some interesting thoughts to ponder about how we decide on the chances we're willing to take in our lives.