Manu Narayan, who plays Professor Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady, exits the production after this Sunday’s performance. Before he went away – to appear in a soon-to-open new Broadway show called Gettin’ the Band Back Together – I visited him in his dressing room. The main thing you need to know about his dressing room is that it is the one closest to the Vivian Beaumont stage, which, since a matinee was in progress, meant that actors beginning their singing before an entrance could be heard just on the other side of Narayan’s door.

I asked Narayan for his thoughts on Karpathy. Inspired, perhaps, by the adjacent rhyme of Alan Jay Lerner’s brilliant lyrics, the actor responded: “Here’s my take: he’s not a fake.”  He added: “Henry Higgins thinks he’s an interloper, a phony, a kind of buffoon. But Karpathy – according to Karpathy – speaks 32 languages. Higgins is versed in phonetics, but seems to speak English primarily.”

Narayan, who started performing semi-professionally in his native Pittsburgh when he was five and went out to a double major, in voice and saxophone, at Carnegie-Mellon, said that the role of Karpathy is “tricky but pivotal. His job is to put pressure on Higgins at the climactic moment. After all, the plot has been leading up to see whether Eliza is going to pass or not as a lady. Karpathy delivers the most important assessment.”

Narayan has played many leading roles, including Akaash in the 2004 Broadway production of Bombay Dreams. Karpathy is a cameo. “At some point during the first week of My Fair Lady rehearsals,” Narayan explained, “Allan Corduner” – who portrays Colonel Pickering – “said that Karpathy is a true cameo: not just a walk-on but a jewel. A role you can delve deeply into. I agree.”

At auditions for Karpathy, Narayan recounted, “They were asking for ‘a Truman Capote type.’ What does that mean? I think it means that they wanted an outsider – Capote came from Alabama to New York and was an insider only until he wrote a book telling tales about his rich friends. He then became an outsider again.”

Narayan said that at times he has thought about Karpathy as another kind of outsider: a member of the Roma people. “When we think of the Roma we think of Hungary and Karpathy is Hungarian. But the Roma originated in India. My parents came from India – they landed first in Detroit before moving to Pittsburgh.”

Narayan has a creative connection to a country just south of Hungary: Serbia. “For the past decade or so I have composed and created songs with a Serbian rock star named Radovan Jovićević. He’s my brother from a different mother. We’ve recorded about 50 songs in the studio. I do all kinds of things – sing in Sanskrit, play the sax. We are developing a musical, with the playwright Aditi Kapil, which New Dramatists and Berkeley Rep have been shepherding. It’s about an Indian engineer who meets a rock star at the fall of Belgrade, during the 1990s.”

It was during that decade that Narayan’s career as an adult performer began. “I did a tour of Miss Saigon and Adam Siegel” – now the Managing Director of Lincoln Center Theater – “was its original company manager. After Adam left then Matthew Markoff” – now the company manager for My Fair Lady – “was hired as the tour’s assistant company manager. And Jenn Rae Moore” – now the production stage manager of My Fair Lady -- and I worked together at Chautauqua” – the Chautauqua Theater Company in upstate New York. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” Narayan said, “to work at Lincoln Center Theater. I had no idea it would also be a reunion with so many wonderful past colleagues.”

“One of the other great things about being here,” Narayan said, “and about playing Karpathy, is that he gets to make his entrance down a grand staircase. My exit from the show won’t be as grand, but there will be every bit as much feeling.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com