'Night Theater' is an intriguing but uneven drama

'Night Theater' by Vikram Paralkar
"Night Theater" by Vikram Paralkar
Courtesy Image

First lines. I love them. Some people collect coins or stamps, I collect first lines. “Night Theater” has an excellent first line: "The day the dead visited the surgeon, the air in his clinic was laced with formaldehyde."

Isn't it a beauty? That first line tantalizes the reader, as does the premise. It's the kind of concept that would make a perfect Twilight Zone episode, or a great low-budget horror movie. An irascible doctor working at night in a tiny clinic in an impoverished Indian village is visited by three murdered people. If he can sew and treat their wounds properly, they'll be able to come back to life. But he only has until dawn.

A blurb on the back of my copy promised me a "thrilling" time. But the concept, though thrilling, does not move in the way of a thriller. There's a rather slow feeling to all the proceedings, this despite the need for three major surgeries in the span of a few hours. The drama necessary to carry such a claustrophobic scenario doesn't manifest. Part of the problem is that the characters always remain at a distance. We don't really get to know the people on display, except for the surgeon at the center of the tale.

The doctor has the seeds of an interesting story. Frustrated to have been exiled to a tiny village, he seems like India's answer to House, M.D., and several scenes with him sizzle with possibility. But when the reason for his exile surfaces, it lacks punch, and the other characters all seem rather lifeless — bad pun, I know — compared to him. For example, a young woman who works as his assistant never gets the attention her character needs.

When you're setting up a play in a single room with only a few characters, you need to crank up the temperature with all of them, but the water never quite boils over during “Night Theater,” and the metaphysical questions it asks are not terribly interesting. Turns out the afterlife is a bureaucracy, which might evoke images of a supernatural version of The Office or even an episode of The Good Place, but as satire it doesn't end up being very funny.

Nevertheless, Paralkar does know how to construct some beautiful lines, just like the opening one. Really, there are too many to quote. He sows lovely lines like someone might sow wildflowers; they're all over the place. At his best, Paralkar also evokes a vivid sense of place, and his knowledge of medical procedures — he's a physician — also shows during the detailed surgical scenes. It's in those moments that Night Theater really blooms.

A bit of the fantastic, a bit of allegory and a bit of medical drama make for a sometimes confounding whole, but Paralkar shows unusual promise. Although I didn't quite love Night Theater, it left me wanting to see something else from the writer. First lines may be fun, but even better are writers who manage to intrigue you. Upon finishing this, I went to see if Paralkar had written anything else and found a shorter work, “The Afflictions” — and ordered it.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is Gods of Jade and Shadow. She tweets at @silviamg.

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