In the world of Nikhil Parmar’s funny, fantastical solo play “Invisible,” the mind-set of Britain has undergone a significant shift. One of the West’s favorite boogeymen — the Islamic fundamentalist — has vanished from the public imagination. Chinese terrorists are the designated bad guys now.
For brown British actors like Zayan Prakash (Parmar), that is both good news and bad. On the one hand, strangers no longer look at him and assume that he’s a threat. On the other, that means the Muslim terrorist roles that were once so prolific have disappeared. So what’s left for him to play? Just “doctors, cabdrivers and corner shop owners.” He’s lucky if those characters get names.
“Invisible,” at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is a drama-tinged satire that morphs into a grisly revenge parable, before shape-shifting into something close to reality. But first this play, directed by Georgia Green for London’s Bush Theater, is a sharp and lively comedy in which the charismatic Zayan recalls answering his door to find his ex-girlfriend, Ella, the mother of his toddler daughter, standing there.
“Hello. Why do you look weird?” Ella asks, and Zayan — who’s looking weird because he’s just heard on the news about the demise of “brown terrorism” — pivots to the audience with a cliché-killing aside that won my heart: “I was going to do her bit in a really high-pitched voice but, (a), it sounded pretty offensive and, (b), she actually has a properly deep voice, so.”
Ella has come to tell Zayan that she has a live-in boyfriend, Terrence, an old classmate of theirs from drama school whose career is flourishing; he’s Korean and playing a terrorist in a prestige drama, now that “East Asian fundamentalism” is supposedly a menace. Zayan can’t stand Terrence, but their ensuing rivalry makes for laughs, even as it drives home a point about jostling for position inside a white-supremacist system.
The magnetic Parmar slips in and out of Zayan and the crowd of characters around him, each distinct. Though the play’s narrative becomes somewhat tangled and unruly, there is method in its muchness.
What torments Zayan is a creeping sense of his own invisibility: Now that he isn’t perceived as a terrorist, he fails to register at all. Yet over the show’s 60-minute running time, we see Zayan for the multitude that he is: underemployed actor, reluctant cater waiter, incompetent weed dealer, doting father, inattentive son. He is also a grieving brother haunted by the ghost of his dead little sister, the person who looked at him and saw someone central to her story.
It is disorienting, and infuriating, to be hampered by a culture’s — and an industry’s — blinkered perception of what a whole group of people is capable of. “Invisible” is a thoughtfully provocative, witheringly knowing response to that noxiousness.
Through July 2 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour.