Derek McLane had a problem. Scott Elliot, artistic director of the Off Broadway company The New Group, wanted to stage East is East, by English playwright Ayub Khan-Din. McLane has worked with Elliot many times before, but East is East was a daunting proposition. The play requires no less than five naturalistically rendered settings. "I was freaking out about it," says the designer, cheerfully.
Fortunately, salvation arrived in the form of Manhattan Theatre Club. The company had an unexpected hole in its schedule, so it opted to partner with The New Group on East is East. This decision allowed McLane to take advantage of MTC's unusually wide and deep space to create the most remarkable set design of the season so far.
Set in Salford, a suburb of Manchester, in 1971, East is East is a comic drama about an English-Pakistani family. Despite his four decades in England, George Khan is determined to impress Muslim values on his six children (a seventh has decamped to become a hairdresser). Ella, George's English wife, acts as a buffer between George and their rebellious offspring (in one riotous scene, they gather to clandestinely feast on forbidden slices of bacon). An undertone of violence runs through the play--of conflict between India and Pakistan and of George's physical assaults on Ella and their children.
The first act of East is East takes place in three locations, for which McLane created an ingenious solution. Audiences entering Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I auditorium saw two rooms onstage. Located stage right was the family business, a fish-and-chips shop complete with the smell of frying fish. At stage left was the living room of the Khan home, a dingy, cluttered space, with sofa, TV set, laundry line, and entrances to a kitchen and hallway offstage. When the action moved to a local hospital, where the belated circumcision of youngest son Sajit took place, the onstage units pivoted open to reveal a hospital hallway. At the conclusion of Act I, a curtain fell. When it rose for Act II, the living room, previously located at stage left, now occupied stage right. Inhabiting stage left was a new setting, depicting the parlor of the Khan house. Later in the act, the two rooms pivoted open to reveal an exterior scene, a canal bank.
How did it all work? The fish shop and living room units were built on casters, with pins inserted into the floor to allow them to pivot open. Then, according to McLane, "At the intermission, [the running crew] takes the chips shop, pulls it upstage, and stores it. Then they take the living room and slide it over to stage right. They take the parlor, which is also sitting upstage, and slide it downstage. They drop new pivot points in--and they're set up for Act II." In addition, the rear piece of the hospital set was flipped to become the hallway just outside the parlor. McLane says that this solution was not easily arrived at: "We had to make cutouts and move them around; we had to revise them a million times to make it all fit."
Aside from its architectural complexity, McLane's designs are impressively detailed, including the Khans' dilapidated furniture, the legion of knickknacks in the living room, and the use of clashing wallpaper patterns so dear to the English lower middle classes. McLane says that Elliot told him "Don't make it theatrical; make it real," and the designer delivered, in spades. On the advice of English director Mark Wing-Davey, McLane contacted the Motley School of Design in London. "They recommended a student, Matt Edwards," says McLane. "He went up to Salford for a day and took photographs. He also photographed a house in London and did some shopping--he sent a few objects that we used as dressing." Edwards also obtained some electrical plugs, which are very different looking in England. McLane also used as research the work of Nick Wapplington: "He has really great photographs of working-class England."
As for that clashing wallpaper, McLane says most of it is American, an "authentic period wallpaper, old and brittle stuff from the late 60s and early 70s," purchased at the New York vintage store Second Hand Rose (Speaking of the horrible brown flocked paper used in the living room, he says, laughing, "There's no more of it. That's the last of it, as far as we can tell."). As for the enormous pile of teacups, trophies, record albums, and just plain junk that fills the living room, he says, "I did a lot of shopping with [MTC properties master] Maggie Kuypers and [MTC properties assistant] Scott Laule. We got a lot of it from the Salvation Army, in Newark--almost all the furniture came from there--and from the Salvation Army in Brooklyn."
Many of the furniture pieces, as well as the edges of moldings, were sanded down to make the set look more worn. Also, he says, "In houses with kids, there are stickers all over the place, so Maggie Kuypers made a bunch of stickers for various English football teams, then stuck them on various things, like the doors. The doors are old, too; we bought them in Harlem. There are so many layers of paint on the doors, so I said to the set painters, 'Just match that amount of texture on the molding.'" The extensive use of props, he adds, was the key to the living room's overly lived-in look. "There's a lot of stuff--hair clips, old batteries, and pen caps--scattered around the floor. I had to glue them down because overzealous stage managers kept cleaning them up at half-hour." Also, he adds, "Some of my son's discarded toys are up there, too."
There were many other details, as well. For the hospital scene, McLane obtained from England color copies of public health posters from the period and had them blown up to the correct size. Of course, everyone's a critic: "Several English friends told me I got the spelling of 'Hematology' wrong in the hospital directory. They spell it differently in England."
The set for East is East was built by Manhattan Theatre Club, in its new shop located in Queens. Assistant set designers on East is East were Zhanna Ghurvich, Matt Anderson, and Dawn Pedric. The production also featured costumes by Mattie Ullrich, lighting by Brian MacDevitt, and sound by Red Ramona. After earning mostly favorable reviews, East is East was extended at Manhattan Theatre Club through mid-July.