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Wish You Were Here

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - May 3, 2022

Marjan Neshat, Roxanna Hope Radja (in white dress),
Nazanin Nour (behind her), Artemis Pebdani, Nikki Massoud

Photo by Joan Marcus
Five lively twentysomething women, on Arnulfo Maldonado's well-appointed living room set, preparing for the wedding of one of them. They giggle, they curse, they affectionately insult one another, they adjust the bridal gown and the bride's makeup, they discuss one another's more intimate body parts and the vagaries of sex. It's a party. The opening scene of Sanaz Toossi's Wish You Were Here at Playwrights Horizons could be an outtake from the Second Stage's recent tenant, To My Girls, except it's straight women instead of gay men. And 1978 instead of the present. And Karaj, Iran, instead of Palm Springs.

One feels right away that Toossi is setting us up: It's not going to stay merry and bright, is it? And it won't, as Toossi, in the manner of another current play, Birthday Candles, is going to lurch forward in time–a year at a time, to 1991, with a few missing years–to convey the displacement, the fracturing of friendships, the effort to stay calm under chaos as the Iran-Iraq war escalates. That she succeeds as well as she does is a testament to her powers of observation and ability to write small-talk dialog that isn't that small; repeated phrases, repeated curses, even silences between lines convey a lot. But she also confuses us–needlessly, I think–in keeping the action so local. What's going on in the outside world? Who are these women when they're not just gal-pals dishing the dirt? What, if any, political viewpoints do they share, and how free are they to express them?

We'll get two more weddings in the early years, and we'll get to know these women better. Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja), the first bride, is the peacemaker, the one to tamp down the ample conflicts among the five. Shideh (Artemis Pebdani), studying to be a doctor, is given to wisecracks and frank observations. Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), while generally friendly, can also be demanding and judgmental. Zari (Nikki Massoud) is a happy idiot, sexually savvy and eager to share ew-ugh observations about copulation. And Rana (Nazanin Nour), smart and self-aware, will be the first to disappear, because this is 1978 Iran and she's a Jew. Out of sight won't be out of mind, though, and that's one of Toossi's points: These young women, tethered or untethered to the rest of the world as they may be, try not to let external crises affect their closeness and easy camaraderie, though time can be a cruel friendship eroder. They're just five young women getting ready for a wedding, joking about vaginas and bodily functions. They sound positively American, which Toossi, in her program note, says is deliberate, and indicative of an attempted universality: "People everywhere–beautifully, tragically, obviously–strive for normalcy."

Marjan Neshat and Roxanna Hope Radja
Photo by Joan Marcus
And then what happens is ... well, not that much, really, as the narrative inches forward year by year and subtle changes happen in the ladies' characters, especially Nazanin's–she becomes meaner. Children are had and a somberness creeps in that wasn't there before. Some years require shutting the drapes and hiding (Reza Behjat's lighting is very expressive here), and we assume there's a war raging. But it's discussed only minimally, and we don't get much of a sense of what these women do, or how their demeanors shift when they're not girl-talking and giggling among one another. Further, Maldonado's set is attractive, but I had to read the script to realize that this is supposed to be several of their living rooms, not just Salme's.

And who do we wish were here? Rana, evidently, whose whereabouts will eventually be discovered, though not everybody looks fondly on her. Meantime, so much chat about peeing, pubic hair, penises–one really starts to question why these are everybody's obsessions. Toossi is pushing feminine bonding so aggressively that it's hard for the rest of us not to feel a little left out. The actors do well, with the quirky Pebdani a real firecracker of a Shideh, and Neshat unafraid to accentuate Nazanin's less attractive traits. Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs astutely, using the whole stage and playing up the slumber-party-like dynamics, and costume designer Sarah Laux distinguishes herself with what looks like a two-ton wedding gown.

But if Toossi's thesis is friendship is essential in hard times and it's sad to see it wear away, she might have bolstered it with stronger differences among the characters and more basic information about their existences. And, not to be too harsh on the author, but I wonder if she's aware she's stolen the title. Wish You Were Here was a successful 1952 American musical comedy, shepherded by Joshua Logan into a long run after a troubled tryout, and still remembered for filling the stage of the Imperial Theatre with an honest-to-God, full-size swimming pool. I wish I were seeing that one.

Wish You Were Here
Through May 29, 2022
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: