This is one very nice play, performed very nicely at the Olney Theatre Center. Set in the Indian-American community in California, A Nice Indian Boy, by Madhuri Shekar, celebrates love, deals with the conflicts it may create in families, and underlines the power of reconciliation.
The setup: Two men, Naveen (Carol Mazhuvancheril) and Keshav (Noah Israel), have a meet-cute at a local Hindu temple and promptly become a couple. Keshav, a white American by birth, was adopted by Indian parents, took an Indian name, went on a lengthy trip to India as a young adult, learned to speak Hindi, and is entranced with traditional Indian culture. If there is an Indian-American culture analog to being more Catholic than the Pope, Keshav is it.
Keshav and Naveen wish to get married, with a traditional Hindu wedding. Keshav desires Naveen’s family’s blessing for their union and, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fashion, he and Naveen arrange a meeting with Naveen’s parents, Megha (Lynette Rathman) and Archit (Abhimanyu Katyal). As mentioned in script and the background material for the production, people familiar with South Asian films would also see parallels to a 1995 Bollywood classic, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ)
Complicated by the arrival of Naveen’s sister, Arundhathi (Jessica Jain), who is coming home with her marriage to a New York surgeon in tatters, the meeting is a disaster, simultaneously hilarious and painful, resulting in Naveen and Keshav temporarily breaking up.
As the famous line in Cool Hand Luke had it, “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Naveen hasn’t told his parents, who have on the whole successfully accepted that he is gay, that his boyfriend is white. Naveen also hasn’t told Keshav that his parents don’t know this fact about him. Arundhathi hasn’t told either Naveen or her parents that her marriage is in trouble, and brother and sister have not had meaningful conversations about their lives for some time. Keshav has evidently not consulted Naveen about whether his parents might find his anxious, uber-traditional presentation to them a bit over the top.
The first portion of the play is mostly rapid-fire comedy in style. The laugh lines come quickly on one another’s heels, the jokes land, and, under Zi Alikhan’s direction, the comic timing excels. As the action proceeds and the characters realize their need to better connect and understand one another, the play’s pace becomes more reflective and its tone becomes quieter, as the script and direction allow deeper levels of the characters to emerge.
Naveen and Arundhathi open to each other about their handling of their respective relationships. Keshav and Naveen reconnect at the temple, reaffirming their love. Arundhathi and Megha have a conversation about their expectations for what love in a marriage should feel like. Keshav visits Archit, approaching him in a more restrained, understanding way, as the two — both cooks — bond in the family kitchen. Communication happens, and it heals.
There is family conflict in the story, but no villains. All the characters, with their quirks and underlying sweetness, misunderstand and then come to understand one another, ultimately being able to reconcile. The characterizations by all five actors are credible and on-point, and only a truly hard-hearted audience member could fail to feel affection for them all.
Perhaps the most important thing the characters learn, and that the audience gains from their stories, is that love can manifest itself in a variety of ways among different people and at different stages of life. As gay men, Keshav and Naveen fall passionately in love at first sight. In the context of her traditional marriage, Megha has a heartwarming speech about love that starts small and grows large over time. It’s all true and valid, a source of life’s joy, made visible in an extended, up-tempo Bollywood-style dance sequence.
Local theater is full of wonderful set designs, but I have trouble recalling any that were as much sheer fun as Frank Oliva’s setting for A Nice Indian Boy. It begins as a naturalistic suburban house interior, centered on a modern kitchen, with a sitting area on one side and a small dining area on the other. Given the centrality of cooking and food to the story, and the cultural importance of the food and its traditions to the family, this makes total sense. But then pay attention to what happens when the refrigerator door opens, when the door to the dining area transforms, and what ultimately overflows the kitchen cupboards. It’s all surprising and delightful.
The other production elements — lighting (Emma Deane), sound (Kenny Neal), costumes (Danielle Preston), and choreography (Ambika Raina) — are consistently strong, each with particular moments that stand out. Particularly the traditional Indian garb used later in the show is lovely (though Arundhathi’s initial orange outfit might better be rethought). The sound, based on South Asian themes, sets a consistent tone throughout and then amps up energetically for the concluding dance break. The lighting does a good job of focusing on, for example, a two-character scene, while softer red light plays on the rest of the stage, where Archit is often to be found cooking. Not only in the long dance sequence but in an earlier scene between Naveen and Keshav, the choreography carries the emotion of the characters. And the initial tentative touches and then passionate kisses between Naveen and Keshav are convincing (intimacy choreography is by Mallory Shear), better than in many a production I have seen.
In an interview in the program, playwright Madhuri Shekar says that she hopes audiences “have a really good time. I hope they laugh a lot… I don’t really want them thinking. I want them to walk out happy.” In all these respects, Olney’s production succeeds. Come to think of it, A Nice Indian Boy would be a nice date movie of a show.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
A Nice Indian Boy plays through April 9, 2023, in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd, Olney, MD. Tickets ($64–$84) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. For details on related community events and accessibility, go here.
The cast and creative credits for A Nice Indian Boy are online here (scroll down).
COVID Safety: Masks are recommended but not required. Olney Theatre Center’s current health and safety policies are here.