Americans have always enjoyed the flattery implicit in other nations' idealization of our open roads, our supposedly vertically mobile society, and our cowboy iconography (our current president, after all, is a "rancher"). Implicit in that pride, in our better moments, is the notion that, in addition to being a cool place, this land is also a place welcome to outsiders. We like to think of ourselves, in other words, as good hosts, a notion exploded by the events of Indian Cowboy, an ambitious but flawed one-man show that provides an abundance of characters and ideas while suffering from a curious staging.
Zaraawar Mistry appears on a bare stage lit only by candles (we'll get back to that), with low-key musical accompaniment by Keith Lee. Mistry plays a variety of roles throughout his performance, but the central focus is on Gayomar Katrak. Gayomar is found as an infant by three brothers, who give him to their childless sister in a set-up with plenty of mythic overtones (the name Gayomar is drawn from the Parsis, Zoroastrians who emigrated to India from Iran in the 10th century, of which ancestral heritage Mistry is derived). They live in Hyderabad, later to be dubbed "the new Silicon Valley," but Gayomar is bitten by the acting bug rather than the techno jones, and the romance of America promptly leads him to idyllic New Jersey.
Mistry is very adept at weaving compelling psychic space out of thin air. The story is generally well paced, and while Guy's narration (he changes his name upon landing on these shores) is at times pat, Mistry's gifts for observation and portrayal impress. He gives us a snippet of a railroad ticket-taker uncle, who always bobs and rocks as though he is on a moving train--whether he is or not. In another fragment, Guy's drunk acting teacher starts out needing consolation and ends up consoling. And in portraying a dippy Los Angelino, Mistry avoids condescension and instead crafts the good-natured tics of a beloved friend.
Throughout, Guy's journey to various ports of call is rendered with insight and humor, spiced with a thickening pall of disillusionment. He gets some work as an actor, and finds a girlfriend, but nothing lasting or satisfying really materializes. When he breaks up with said paramour, she offers the insight that Guy doesn't know who he is, that he has no coherent identity beneath his glib surface. She has a decent point, and as a critic I was grateful to her for doing my work for me.
Finally Guy's story takes a turn for the bizarre when, following 9/11, he's swept up by the authorities and detained for months of interrogation based on an oddball gig he had once accepted (the plot device is a reach, but not overly so). Here Mistry gives us the hopeful immigrant turned handcuffed prisoner held without charge. Guy relives and recounts these months with a sort of humble shame, that of a man wrongly accused who perhaps feels himself atoning for other sins. Mistry delivers this timely sequence about innocents caught in the web of American vengeance without preaching. Without our consent, one is inclined to think, our "good host" status has been shot to hell.
But back to matters aesthetic. Indian Cowboy, for all the assurance of Mistry's performance and the depth of his ideas, is performed in the dark. There are candles, yes, but this was the darkest room in which I've ever sat in a theater. I have this odd trait--when I sit in a very dark place for a long time, I begin to get sleepy. I sensed the atmospherics were quite intentional, and invoked the spiritual side of the work, but some contrast would have helped. At times during this show I had to snap to attention and try to clue in to what Mistry was saying. Which was a shame, since what he was saying was typically compelling. I dig the spell Mistry is casting. But I need a little light as well, to mirror the illumination his work pursues.