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30 Rock star Maulik Pancholy plays a deluded patient in Good for Otto
For the first half of David Rabe's new drama Good for Otto, set in a rural mental health clinic, Maulik Pancholy sits silently on the side of the stage, barely noticeable as his costars command the spotlight. But that all changes in Act II when his character, Alex, enters the scene, both literally and figuratively. "It's been an interesting process for me, finding the right balance of constant engagement with the play, but forcing myself not to jump the gun," says Pancholy, who's best known for playing Alec Baldwin's assistant Jonathan on NBC's 30 Rock. "Ultimately, though, sitting onstage before you have to pop up and start really forces you to be constantly present."
Produced by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center and directed by Tony winner Scott Elliott, the show erases the traditional divide between actors and audience by placing some of the theatregoers onstage. In fact, for all of Act I, Pancholy is sitting among the spectators. "It creates a real sense of community," he says. "The onstage seating functions as a waiting room -- it's as if we're all waiting for our turn to talk to our therapists!"
Those doctors are Bob (played by four-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris) and Evangeline (played by Harris's real-life wife Amy Madigan) who treat a motley crew of patients, including socially awkward Timothy (Mark Linn-Baker), elderly Barnard (F. Murray Abraham), hoarder Jerome (Kenny Mellman), and disturbed nine-year-old Frannie (Rileigh McDonald) and her frazzled foster mother Nora (Rhea Perlman). Each one is a singular case, but Pancholy's Alex -- a closeted gay man who vacillates between fear and fantasy -- may be the most troubled. "As soon as I read the play, I felt a real connection to the character," the actor says. "There are so many fascinating facets to the diamond of Alex, from not having his parents around, to his deep fear of accepting himself."
Although Pancholy is openly gay and happily married, he has empathy for Alex's situation. "I definitely faced the fear of coming out, and his fear of being judged for his sexual orientation is something I can relate to," he says. "Like Alex, I know there are people in the world who hate me just for that fact. And, let's face it, that feeling of being a hated outsider is something all sorts of people can relate to -- especially right now in this country."
Other aspects of Alex's fragile psyche are foreign to Pancholy, but that's what makes the character exciting to play. "He presents such an extreme world to Evangeline, one that he's constructed and is afraid to let go of," Pancholy says. "I understand that on some days everyone wishes they could be another person. But the fact that Alex doesn't have the true self-realization that he's living in a fantasy world makes his attempts at therapy, at opening up, emotionally challenging."
Despite working on many high-profile projects with famous actors throughout his 20-year career, Pancholy admits he was initially a bit intimidated by Good for Otto's starry cast, especially Harris and Madigan, who are New Group veterans (The Jacksonian, Buried Child). "The anticipation of walking into the rehearsal room was terrifying!" he recalls. "But when I came in, Ed was sitting at a table and he immediately came over to say hi. He and Amy are the sweetest people and working with them is like a master class."
Certainly the challenge of performing such an intimate and intense play has been a great bonding experience for all involved. "We quickly realized that doing this show is a monumental task, and there is no room for anything but humility," Pancholy says. "What's amazing is that the 14 people onstage are of all ages and experience levels, yet everyone has been so open and willing to share his or her process. I love television and film work, but I've been longing to do a play just like this one. It makes me feel alive every night."
To read about a student's experience at Good for Otto, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Maulik Pancholy in Good for Otto. Photos by Monique Carboni.
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