These days, Maulik Pancholy feels like he’s being shot out of a cannon.
The actor, known for his comic turns on TV series (Alec Baldwin’s high-strung assistant on “30 Rock,” Mary Louise Parker’s protégé on “Weeds”), plays a small but key role in Bess Wohl’s outrageously funny new Broadway play “Grand Horizons,” which opened Jan. 23 at the Hayes Theatre and runs through March 1.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, the story opens with a couple (Jane Alexander and James Cromwell) who, after 50 years of marriage, drop a bombshell on their family— they want to divorce. Enter their sons (Ben McKenzie, of “The OC’” and “Gotham;” and “Ugly Betty’s” Michael Urie) and very pregnant daughter-in-law (Ashley Park, of Broadway’s “Mean Girls”) to fix things. They soon learn ever-reliable Mom and Dad are less predictable than expected. When one of the sons returns home with an eager one-night-stand (Pancholy), things get even more complicated.
Pancholy, 46, lives in Brooklyn and voices characters on animated series (“Phineas and Ferb,” “Sanjay and Craig”). He’s also an author — his debut middle-school novel, “The Best At It” (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99) launched last fall, garnering positive reviews, and he’s now working on a TV adaptation. He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio
You step onstage in the middle of the play and come on like gangbusters. You’re funny, then sincere, then intense and —bam —you’re out the door, not seen again till curtain call. That’s a lot of pressure — just one scene in which to deliver the goods.
Definitely. My character really shakes things up. The play is so much fun because it’s got these older actors at the center of the story, which is so rare. (But there’s also a single) guy just seemingly out to have a good time and a couple about to have a baby. There’s someone every audience member can relate to.
The audience seemed very responsive. In fact, the woman next to me grabbed my leg and yelled at one point when — well, no spoilers. Let’s just say something very surprising happens.
We can hear the audience through the monitors backstage. But I’ll tell you — sometimes quiet audiences are really listening and having a good time. It’s important for us to not be super-attached to a vocal response.
I guess that’s a good lesson in comedy.
If you play things truthfully, it’s always going to land differently. Although…it’s definitely fun to get a great laugh. (He laughs himself.) For me, trusting the process (of finding your character) can be challenging. You wanna nail it at the first read-through, then nail it at the first rehearsal. It helps being able to see (vets like Alexander and Cromwell)…they’re pros, and they take their time. That’s why we get rehearsals and previews. The process is there for a reason.
But generally not there in TV.
It’s not. You have to work so quickly in TV. But I’ve been lucky — on “30 Rock” or “Weeds,” we got to develop characters over several years. The characters deepened in a way that doesn’t happen in theater.
What’s it like to be a published author?
Pretty amazing. It’s not something I’d set out to do. But I’m conscious of diversity and lack of representation. I know how damaging it can be as a kid to turn on the television and never see anyone who looks like you. It made me feel like who I was didn’t matter. Some folks in the literary world told me the same thing is true in books for young people, especially middle school books. After that, I read a bunch and was like, I think I might have a story to tell.
A story about a gay, Indian-American, 12-year-old math nerd with OCD-like tendencies. It’s fiction, but based on your youth in Tampa, right?
Yes. Probably the most rewarding part has been talking to kids in middle school auditoriums, getting them to open up about bullying and their own challenges. Getting to laugh and have fun. In the book, the lead character is coming to terms with his cultural and sexual identity. His stress plays out in compulsions—he checks locks, checks the stove. At almost every school I visit there are kids struggling with (similar issues). One kid was rubbing the skin off her hand incessantly while talking to me. I understood in that moment that I think she just wanted someone to say, “I relate to you, and it’s okay.” I didn’t have that growing up. I never had anyone who came to my school and said it’s okay to be gay. Like, that just didn’t exist. So to be a healing force for kids in a way that I didn’t have myself is…it’s pretty incredible.