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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matthew Rauch
Photo by Evan Sung Photography.

The power of stories to prod, provoke, and preserve has been a favorite topic of writers since time immemorial, but seldom has the subject been taken to the grand extremes of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Though perhaps best known for introducing Westerners to the likes of Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba, the collection tells the convoluted but cunning tale of the young girl Scheherazade, who tricks her king husband into giving up his ways of murdering his virgin brides to preserve their fidelity. Yes, the pen has always been mightier than the sword.

Every night before they are about to consummate their marriage, she tells him a tale that's either so exciting or so fragmented that he simply must keep her alive until the next evening to hear how it all concludes or unravels. And for the first 15 minutes of 1001, Jason Grote's 2007 spin on the millennium-old saga, it looks as though Scheherazade (Roxanna Hope) and her husband Shahriyar (Matthew Rauch) will themselves be worth watching for nearly three years.

Though Grote overreaches in his quest for cleverness - Shahriyar lapses into anachronism every other sentence or so - the two make a glittering couple during their initial battle of the minds. Hope's Scheherazade is a sinewy, sensual marvel who caresses words with at least as much care as she does her men, and Rauch is an overgrown child who always looks and behaves as though he's just about to dive into sand-melting tantrum. As long as they're playing off each other's fears and passions, they complement each other as perfectly as cumin and coriander.

But as soon as Relevance rears its head, the spell is broken. Grote, not satisfied merely with providing another retelling of the ancient Arabian stories, delves into the modern day as well with results that are as baffling as they are unconvincing.

Roxanna Hope and Matthew Rauch.
Photo by Evan Sung Photography.

Scheherazade's schemes to save her head gradually start incorporating contemporary concerns, mostly surrounding a September 11-style terrorist attack and its impact on the young mixed-race couple Alan and Dahna (again played by Rauch and Hope). She's Arab, he's Jewish, and after they meet at an Alan Dershowitz speech (don't ask), they fall in love only to find out that together they're targets for nearly every kind of violence and hate crime there is. The flames of their unspoken doubts are fanned by their own baggage - pre-existing partners they can't completely shake - leading to emotional conflagrations that rival the New York bombing in their destructiveness and pointlessness.

The troubles of the two couples vaguely reflect each other across the centuries, but Grote makes little secret of his greater interest on the doomed lovers of today. Eventually, he plucks Scheherazade and Shahriyar from the narrative altogether, forcing the stories between them to stop suggesting reality and instead become it. There are brief glimpses of that pesky, dusty lamp (and a genie who arrives on hydraulics) on the streets of "Manhat," and the fabric connecting everything is loose enough to allow even comments and criticisms about the stories to be woven into it. Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote extensively of Arabian Nights, is himself a character, and the patchwork quilt of time-bending themes fervently suggests Edgar Allan Poe's own twist on the legends, "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade."

Grote's creativity isn't in question, merely what it's servicing, which is never clear. Rachael Hauck provides so inventive projections and sets (the latter of which suavely blend graffiti and Persian rugs), and there are beautiful costumes by Murrell Horton that instantly clear up any and all confusion about what is taking place, and when. But being forced to forget about the why, the reason for Scheherazade's moralizing recitations in the first place, prevents either play or production from adding up to anything new. Director Ethan McSweeny has staged the show with a dreamlike sandstorm-in-an-hourglass quality that's just right for the material, but imparts no particular insight of its own.

By the end of the two-hour, intermissionless evening, you've learned that - whether a thousand years ago or just yesterday - discrimination is bad, governmental enforcement of morality is worse, and violence's habit of begetting violence is perhaps the greatest single threat humankind has ever faced. But you can glean as much from devoting just one night to watching CNN - you certainly don't need one thousand and one of them, let alone 1001, to learn something that was old news back when Arabian Nights first made the best-seller lists.

Through November 17
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 25th Street between Lexington & Third Avenues
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