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The curious incident of Leela in the nighttime: New play explores the OC through autistic eyes

The curious incident of Leela in the nighttime: New play explores the OC through autistic eyes
"Orange" stars Pia Shah, right, pictured here with actress Anjali Bhimani and actor Karthik Srinivasan. (Debora Robinson)

"Orange County? Ew," sneered Paris Hilton in her 2008 cameo on the Fox melodrama "The O.C." As if the region hadn't been damaged enough, "The Real Housewives of Orange County" debuted soon afterward, cementing the county's reputation as a gated playground for rich, mean, Botoxed, predominantly white women.

But maybe not forever: Aditi Brennan Kapil's play "Orange," now at South Coast Repertory in its West Coast premiere, explores an O.C. different from the TV version, through the eyes of a lonely teenage girl from Calcutta.

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"Orange" evolved from SCR's CrossRoads Initiative,which invites culturally diverse writers to visit Orange County and write plays inspired by their experiences there. The plays don't have to relate to Orange County; Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone," for example, an earlier CrossRoads commission, is set in a refugee camp in Arkansas. But Kapil did choose to tell an O.C. story, incorporating places and images that struck her during her residency.

Her characters drive along PCH and stop to speculate about the blimp hangars in Tustin, watch Disneyland's fireworks from atop a billboard, play baseball in Shaffer Park and have a bonfire on the beach. Oranges, not unexpectedly, also play a significant role in the story, symbolizing, as they have throughout California's history, the state's ripe, sunny promise and often disillusioning realities.

Leela (Pia Shah) was born in Orange County, but when she was 5, returned to India with her mother (Anjali Bhimani) while her father (Karthik Srinivasan) stayed in the U.S. to work. Leela was an unusual child, unsmiling and quiet, and her father was uncomfortable with her difference, even fearing it might affect his business. Now Leela is 17, and her mother is tired of waiting for her husband to join them or invite them back. She has seized on the wedding of a relative as an opportunity to reunite her little family, and when we meet her and Leela, they are on a plane to John Wayne Airport.

Leela, a young woman of few words, is always drawing in her journal. Her art comes to life on screens that drop down behind her to provide the scenery for her travels. Initially simple, in black and white, the drawings grow increasingly rich, detailed and colorful as the play progresses. (Illustrations by Lyuben Dimitrov are projected by Mike Tutaj on Michael B. Raiford's minimal set.)

As we get to know Leela, it becomes clear that she falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. She was homeschooled in India, and her mother has never left her alone. When asked why, Leela enigmatically replies, "I have bad judgment."

At the wedding, Leela re-encounters a cousin she knew in childhood, Priti (also played by Bhimani, like all the other female characters in the play), who lures her away from the party with the promise of an adventure. Priti, about to leave for college, wants to take a farewell tour of the O.C. with her boyfriend, Gar (played by Srinivasan, like all the other male characters in the play), inspired by a bucket list they composed when they were 12.

It sounds entertaining enough, but once they're on the road, Leela discovers that Gar is a reluctant participant and Priti's motives for inviting her aren't as benevolent as they had sounded. There's a lot of arguing and screaming and a vague, continual sense of danger.

In some ways "Orange" resembles "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime," the play based on Mark Haddon's novel. In both, a cognitively limited protagonist navigates the perplexing and perilous outside world, teaching its neurotypical habitués some simple but life-altering truths along the way. Leela remains the most appealing character onstage throughout "Orange," and her effect on the thuggish Priti and hapless Gar proves the effectiveness of the road-trip formula for developing character.

But the other people Leela encounters, like a homeless man, a little girl and a beer-guzzling assailant, don't serve the story as well. Jessica Kubzansky's charming and lively direction can't smooth the choppy, episodic pacing of Leela's journey, or the sense that the script is still casting about for the story it really wants to tell. Finally, a revelation in the last scene forces the audience to reconsider everything that has come before, in a bleak light that seems at odds with the prevailingly comic tone. Although it has a juicy premise, "Orange" could use some more vigorous squeezing.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Orange’

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; ends March 26

Tickets: $22 and up

Information: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org

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Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Follow The Times' arts team @culturemonster.

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