Fact: Rajat Gupta, former managing partner of McKinsey, was convicted of insider trading in June 2012 and spent two years in prison. Fact: Gupta has four daughters; the youngest, Deepali, is a theater artist, who writes a play about the trial over the ten years that follow it. That play–the satirical “musical tragedy” United States v. Gupta–hangs itself on those two facts, but it constantly darts back and forth around and between them, using the self-consciousness constructedness of its own existence as a way to constantly puncture its narrative momentum and alienate–in the Brechtian sense–its audience. For Brecht, the goal of the alienation effect was for the performance to hinder the audience from simple identification with the characters in a play: “Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audience’s subconscious.” Using the tools of both theater and postmodern criticism to interrogate its own premises, as well as the premises of the justice system, autobiography, family, and even sanity itself, United States v. Gupta is always happening on multiple levels: undercutting its own documentary elements with double casting sight gags; deflating its satire with its peeks into Gupta’s very real battles with psychosis; putting the performative quality back into scenes from the psych ward with its plaintive, moody songs (also by Gupta).
Rajat Gupta (Jonathan Raviv) was a hero to many people—the first Indian to run a major American corporation, the founder of India’s premier business school, a generous philanthropist, a loving father who raised four daughters with enormous privilege. He is also a convicted criminal, who served two years in prison. Deepali is less concerned with whether her father was guilty (and only belatedly acknowledges the question of whether, even if he were to be proven innocent, a life spent working for McKinsey carries its own thorny ethical questions) than with the narratives that have been constructed around Rajat—not least, by her own family. And Raviv plays him with a stoic reserve that (intentionally) makes it even harder to get a grip on which of the play’s many narratives about Rajat we are meant to believe.
While a substantial portion of the play’s first half is trial transcripts, Gupta, who plays herself as playwright, narrator, and family member, has edited them in such a way as to almost entirely elide questions of fact or of guilt. Rajat barely speaks; what we’re mostly watching is the machinations of the attorneys (Jed Resnick as the prosecutor and Jon Krupp as the defense attorney), the judge (Beth Griffith), and the witnesses. The witnesses are mostly played by a rotating slate of Resnick, Krupp, and Griffith (with Raviv stepping in as one key player, Rajat’s protege); one of the play’s funniest scenes involves Resnick and Krupp trading off in the role of witness Caryn Eisenberg. As the script notes, Eisenberg wore “a black halter top and a sequined cardigan. Her outfit was mentioned in every article detailing her testimony, and detailed in courtroom Illustrations”; Krupp and Resnick pass a cardigan back and forth, each playing Eisenberg for the other’s examination of her. It’s only funnier that her testimony is both fairly mundane and subject to multiple separate sidebars designed to put guardrails around it. We’re simultaneously being made to think about the absurdity of the adversarial trial process–the adversarial nature of which is specifically pointed out by Resnick; to try to figure out what actually happened; to watch Gupta and her family–her mother, Anita (Rita Wolf), and one stand-in for all three sister (Arti Gollapudi) watch the trial; and to watch the court reporters watching the Gupta family watch the trial.
It’s a dizzying hall of mirrors, and it’s a credit to director Caitlin Sullivan that all of it is as crisp and clear as it is. Gupta–befitting her role as narrator–leans a little presentational, but the rest of the performances are relentlessly unshowy, even in the silliest moments. For a play with this many layers, the whole thing retains an unadorned, stripped-down quality; it all moves with deliberateness and precision, which allows it to not feel like a total left turn when we shift from the antic satire of the trial to the more poignant, naturalistic scenes in the prison visiting room and the psychiatric ward where Gupta ends up spending time. The physical environment remains relentlessly grounded in the mundane, too–dots’s set is full of file boxes and industrial metal shelving and even a real vending machine and microwave; the audience risers are constructed like a jury box. Much of the play takes place under at least partial house lights, explicitly putting the audience in the jury position; Stacey Derosier’s lighting also brings in harsh fluorescent tubes when it needs to take on the tinge of the institution.
The overall balance definitely tips toward the meta. The layers of commentary grow to include not just the trial transcript and the press coverage of the trial (and critical analysis of the quality of the press coverage of the trial) but a (mediocre and poorly written) book about Rajat (some of the play’s earliest lines, we later realize, were quoting it), the memoir Rajat later wrote himself, Gupta’s own earlier writings about her life, bits of family history, and Gupta’s “cheat sheet”: a list of points of exposition the audience will need later. The constrant interpolation threatens to drown the narratives of both the trial and the act of making art about it. But that’s all to the point; in some ways, the play is a three-hour act of deflection: deflection from the central question of what it means to be a good person, and how one is ever to truly understand whether one’s parents are good people.
The piece calls itself a musical tragedy and also a satire and both of those are sometimes true. It’s often very funny but as with its metacommentary, it seems to be using humor to make us not think about what really happened here—about whether Deepali is okay, whether her father is a good man, whether her grandfather was a hero. The play spends so much time interrogating its own process that sometimes that content and the humans who comprise it get a little shortchanged. The alienation effect is meant to leave you thinking about the characters rather than responding from pure emotion–but here, it sometimes feels like the play is working overtime to stop us from thinking, to misdirect us so we can’t find the footing from which to form those conscious opinions about the humans at the core of it. Deepali, in the end, has a still, small moment with Rajat. “I’m going to ask you one question. . . . You’re going to answer my question with the truth,” she says to her father. It is entirely characteristic of United States v Gupta that we don’t get to hear the answer.