Review: Meet Carol Mazhuvancheril and His Song of Joy
"Every day is the same in this tiny studio apartment with strangers whom I call mummy and daddy," recalls Carol Mazhuvancheril of the Vienna apartment he inhabited with his family when he was 5 years old. Up to that point, his mother had spent much of his life working as a nurse in Austria, entrusting Carol to the care of extended family in back in Kerala. When she returned to India to collect him, she must have felt like a stranger — especially in the time before Zoom.
This is an increasingly common story as millions of South Asians and Filipinos seek employment abroad. The higher wages offered in Europe and the Gulf States carry the potential for lifechanging advancement, albeit at the cost of extended estrangement from one's family. Is the bargain worth it? That question is the most interesting aspect of Song of Joy, Mazhuvancheril's autobiographical solo play at the Tank.
The latest entry in the actor-talks-about-self genre of theater, Song of Joy features many of the trappings of this exhausted form. Shelves on the upstage wall display key props as if they were holy relics (scenic design by Matthew Deinhart). A charming nebbish, Mazhuvancheril uses these props and the cloth hanging from the grid (costumes by Xindi Xu) to transform into multiple family members: He wraps himself in a sari (for mom) or bulges out his mouth like he's permanently chewing on betel nuts (for an elderly music teacher). These characters engage in one-sided conversations, often in the form of a long-distance telephone call as little Carol bounces from that apartment in Vienna to boarding school in India and back to an international school in Austria. Formally, it's nothing we haven't seen before, although Mazhuvancheril's journey is quite unique for an off-Broadway actor.
"My family is once more united as we move into the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, pursuing the American dream," he announces, underscored by the canned sound of fireworks and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (on-the-nose sound design by Sara Vandenheuvel). His breezy narrative sidesteps what must have been a mountain of paperwork required to move his family across borders with such frequency — a missed opportunity when so many Americans are still blissfully ignorant of immigration bureaucracy.
But Mazhuvancheril is less interested in explaining the difference between F-1 and H-1B than he is in revisiting the cultural touchstones that turned him into the artist he is today: A talent show performance of Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" was a breakout moment for the shy Indian boy adrift in Austria. And Natalie Portman in Black Swan was a revelation, convincing Mazhuvancheril to take up ballet (apparently, the mental breakdown depicted in the film was no deterrent). In this story, the megaphone of American culture is so loud that it blares across the seas, as unquestioned as a jet stream.
Mazhuvancheril dedicates less time to unpacking his relationship to Carnatic music (beyond that one lesson) and traditional South Indian dance, although we know it must be significant: The grand finale is an exuberant pas de deux with a dancer portraying his little sister (lively and precise choreography by Alisha Desai). It's a perfectly enjoyable way to end the show, although it seems to come out of left field following the latter third of the play, which is all about Carol coming to terms with his homosexuality and moving to New York to pursue a career as an actor (he recently appeared as an understudy in To My Girls).
Director Nick Browne brings a light touch to this unfocused script, which requires a firmer hand to shape it into something sharp, specific, and impactful. Important questions are raised about the portability of culture, the gravitational pull of the labor market, and the durability of family in a global economy. Any of these topics could merit their own play, and none of them are given as much thought as they deserve here. Instead, Song of Joy devolves into a garden-variety actor's biography. Mazhuvancheril has led an undoubtedly interesting life, but in its present form, Song of Joy sounds too much like a ditty we've heard before.