Talented actor embraces challenging roles
It’s possible you’ll recognize actor Maulik Pancholy from his scene-stealing turn in the early seasons of Weeds as cowardly, closeted pot dealer Sanjay Patel. Or maybe from the first season of Whitney, in which his character, Neal, eventually came out as bisexual. More than likely, though, you remember Pancholy as Jonathan on 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy’s supremely loyal personal assistant, who may or may not have actually been in love with his employer and about whose portrayer Alec Baldwin’s Jack even uttered this line: “Jenna has become a huge star for this network. She’s bigger than Maulik Pancholy on Whitney.”
You won’t find much sexual confusion in Pancholy’s latest role of Nate in 59E59’s production of The Awake, directed by Adam Fitzgerald and written by Ken Urban (himself having a moment with the film release of The Happy Sad, which he adapted from his own 2009 play, which also featured Pancholy) – but don’t expect straightforward answers, either, in this ambitious and ambiguous play about three interconnected souls all working for the same enigmatic corporation.
Pancholy plays Nate, a Canadian Muslim described in the script as having a “face etched by fear.” “I feel like that’s an incredible image for me,” Pancholy said, “but it’s not the only side of Nate that you see. He starts off just a little confused, and it quickly devolves into much more than that.
“Like all the other characters in the play,” Pancholy added, “Nate is a guy who has a tragic circumstance happen to him, not through any fault of his own, but I think there is an element of him that believes that he might have some fault, and is terrified of what might happen if he goes home. His big journey in the play is facing the things he is terrified of and feeling guilty about. The face etched by fear is an image that keeps popping up and eventually he has to face the face, as it were.”
“In rehearsal, Maulik really bares his soul to understand Nate’s journey,” Urban explained. “There are moments in the play that would be daunting to any actor, and Maulik is without ego in trying to find the truth of his character. When I wrote Awake, I always hoped I would find a way for him to play the role of Nate.” (The cast also includes Jeff Biehl, Andy Phela), and Lori Prince.)
Pancholy is equally praiseful of his friend and playwright, especially when it comes to some of Urban’s specific stylistic choices. “Awake was conceived of as a radio play, and the idea of sound and the rhythm of language is very important,” the affable actor states. “Ken writes a lot of specific language demands. It is a play that is initially meant to be heard,” which he adds, “is not limiting but gives us a challenge to rise up to. This play needs to be experienced rather than understood. It is storytelling while actually reliving the event that we’re talking about, so there is a sense of communicating something to an audience while also going through it.”
For his part, the playwright is certain that these are challenges Pancholy, an alum of Northwestern University and Yale School of Drama, can surmount. “I knew Maulik from his work on 30 Rock and Weeds, but I was so impressed by his versatility and bravery as an actor,” Urban says. “He is incredibly funny but his TV roles only scratch the surface of what he can do as an actor. I realized he is a stage actor who found himself on TV.”
In fact, Awake marks Pancholy’s first return to the stage since Happy, following a spate of high-profile television work. Additionally, audience members may recognize him from voice-over work as neighbor Baljeet Tjinder on The Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb and as a different Sanjay Patel on Nickelodeon’s Sanjay and Craig, voicing the lead role of a twelve-year-old with a snake for a best friend.
“I think it’s the first time there has been an Indian-American character who is the lead on a network cartoon,” Pancholy said. “He’s very much Indian-American, he’s just your average kid who goes on zany adventures. Just because your skin is a different color or one of your parents is not from this country, doesn’t mean you’re any different, and I think that’s very cool.” In the meantime, Pancholy is also developing his own some of his own projects.
“I’m lucky, I’ve gotten to do some very cool things in the last few years,” a humble Pancholy says. “But I’d love to be able to do more theatre.”
Fans should head to Awake and catch Pancholy while they can.
The Awake opens on Wednesday, August 28 at 59e59. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=127
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