Playwright Madhuri Shekar puts a fresh, multicultural, same-sex spin on the classic romantic comedy in her World Premiere dramedy A Nice Indian Boy, one of the best original plays I’ve seen at East West Players, a romcom that had me at “Hello,” or in the case of Naveen and Keshav, at “Om.”
Our hero and hero “meet cute” at a San Francisco-adjacent Hindu temple where tall, dark, and handsome Naveen Gavaskar (Andy Gala) finds himself immediately taken by the tall, blond, and handsome stranger who seems to know a good deal more about Indian religious rites than the U.S.-bred Naveen.
Imagine our All-(Indian-)American Boy’s surprise when the fair-haired young man (Christian Durso) introduces himself as Keshav Kurundkhar, adopted son of a now-deceased Indian couple who gave a lonely foster care victim the gift of both a loving home and a cultural identity, albeit one not visible at first glance at his blue eyes and scruffy blond beard.
It doesn’t take Naveen long to reveal to Keshav how fed up he is with a succession of meaningless hookups, and how much he longs for a real, lasting relationship, feelings which Keshav reciprocates … and then some, and before you know it, six months have passed and Naveen is ready to introduce his immigrant parents Archit and Megha (Anjul Nigam and Rachna Khatau) to the love of his life.
Not surprisingly, Naveen’s folks don’t know what to make of the young Caucasian who not only knows Indian rituals but speaks their native Hindi better than their own son, an uncomfortable first meeting complicated by the arrival of Archit and Megha’s married daughter Arundhathi (Mouzam Makkar), who’s flown across the country without a word of warning and in a particularly foul mood.
To say that Keshav’s meet-and-greet with his possibly future in-laws doesn’t go well would be an understatement, though fortunately not an engagement breaker, or at least not yet.
Like any romantic comedy worth its salty tears, A Nice Indian Boy knows the power of a true-love story, especially when obstacles are placed along the road to the happy ending we know is on the way, even if a happily-ever-after fadeout does seem iffy at times.
First and foremost, there’s the matter of Naveen’s sexual orientation, Yes, Archit and Megha have accepted their son’s homosexuality about as well as can be expected from a pair of old-fashioned Indians. Still, the couple have a good ways to go, particularly the macho Archit.
Then there’s Keshav’s race, A Nice Indian Boy offering a clever 21st-century spin on the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, only this time it’s the otherwise picture-perfect white fiancé made to suffer for something over which he has no control. (Well, picture-perfect may be a bit of an exaggeration given Keshav’s penchant for getting high, one which he makes the mistake of indulging in in the Gavaskar family bathroom. And let’s not even talk about the brand-new tattoo of Ganesh on Naveen’s bicep, one suspiciously similar to the one Keshav sports on the back of his neck.)
Making matters even worse for Naveen is his sister’s lack of support, though it’s easy to understand Arundhathi’s anger at a brother who found it necessary to keep a serious six-month relationship from her. It doesn’t help either that Arundhathi’s marriage is on the rocks, and that seeing her brother head-over-heels in love only brings home that her quasi-arranged matrimony is hardly the love match she now wishes she had held out for.
Playwright Shekar has based the long-married Archit and Megha on her own parents, an authenticity reflected in the refreshingly three-dimensional characters brought to life on the David Henry Hwang Theater stage. Siblings Naveen and Arundhathi are equally well-drawn, and if Keshav might seem an anomaly in the Indian-American community, he too rings real and true. Yes, Naveen’s soul mate may be going overboard with the whole “Indian” thing, but then again why wouldn’t he be, given the rescue provided by a loving couple taken away much too soon?
In writing about East West Players’ 2011 Bollywood gem A Widow Of No Importance, I concluded my rave review with a minor caveat, a suggestion that “a play about South Asians in the U.S.A. might be more ideally up East West Players’ alley than one about life in The Old Country.”
Gala proves himself the quintessential romcom lead, instantly likeable, a terrific comedic talent with topnotch dramatic chops when needed, and darned sexy to boot. The equally attractive Durso is marvelous too as the man of Naveen’s dreams, intense, well-meaning, flawed, but entirely human. The gorgeous, husky-voiced Makkar is simply sensational as a young woman unwilling to repeat what she sees as her parents’ mistakes. Nigam excels too, giving us an old-school father whose rage at a son he sees as too willing to break from centuries-old Indian traditions cannot mask a deep paternal love. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the tall, stunning Khatau, disappearing into the skin of a woman at least twice her age, and making us believe in this Indian tiger of a mother whom any son would be proud to call Mom.
Scenic designer Kaitlyn Pietras’s use of Indian motifs makes her multi-locale set an attractive, effective one, smartly appointed by prop master Alex Rehberger and richly lit by lighting designer Wen-Ling Liao. EB Brooks has come up with a terrifically varied set of costumes, from contemporary American casual outfits to traditional Indian wedding saris. Sound designer Veronika Vorel does tiptop work as well, integrating Indian backup tunes with appropriate effects.
A Nice Indian Boy is produced in association with the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and in community partnership with API Equality and Satrang. Sarah Joynt Borger is stage manager.
With the horrendous re-criminalization of homosexuality by India’s Supreme Court still making headlines, A Nice Indian Boy couldn’t come at a more propitious moment, nor serve as a more effective dialog-opener in a community for whom the topic of same-sex love remains too often taboo. That it is a bona fide crowd-pleasing gem of a romantic comedy is icing on the cake.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. Through March 23. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 213 625-7000
February 26, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont