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Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 12, 2018

Two years ago Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit was an Off-Broadway hit and ran an impressive forty-two weeks. (It played Monday nights only at the Westside Theatre.) The solo play featured a new performer for each show, and the guest celebrity saw the script for the first time right before the show began. Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Cynthia Nixon, and Josh Radnor (whom I saw) were just some of the stars that took on the role. Soleimanpour's newest play, Nassim, uses a similar conceit. The play, now running at New York City Center's Stage II, features a different actor for every performance, but Soleimanpour himself rounds out the cast of two.

At the performance I attended, John-Michael Lyles (most recently seen in This Ain't No Disco at the Atlantic and Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater) was the guest actor. (Michael Urie, Tracy Letts, Jennifer Lim, and Reed Birney are some of the names listed for upcoming shows.) Serving both as the playwright's voice (since Soleimanpour admits to having limited English), scene partner, and audience intermediary, the actor has no easy role.

Lyles was an animated and gregarious host, and as the play focuses on the importance of building friendships and alliances amidst national, cultural, and language barriers, he was perfectly cast. While Soleimanpour, who generally stayed seated and flipped the pages of the script (which were projected on a screen), was a staid, mostly silent, and playfully sly presence, Lyles enthusiastically engaged the audience and responded to the playwright's assigned tasks.

Nassim, as is evident from the title, is an autobiographical piece. Soleimanpour explains that as an Iranian playwright, he was not able to have his plays performed in his own country. They have been translated, however, from his native Farsi and performed in more than fifty countries around the world, including Ireland, Germany, Poland, Peru, China, Japan, and Mexico. One of his deepest regrets, he explains, is that his Iranian mother has never had the chance to hear one of his plays in her (and his) own language. Without providing any spoilers here, this play hopes to change that.

With the actor's assistance, the playwright recounts some of his memories of growing up in Iran, and in particular he describes his experiences learning to read Farsi under his mother's patient and loving tutelage. Every time the he made an error, he recounts, he was required to eat one cherry tomato. The playwright replicates the pedagogical technique when he instructs the actor in a short lesson in Farsi. Let's just say that Lyles more than met the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables that day.

The eighty-minute play, which is directed by Omar Elerian, is rather thin, and it becomes somewhat treacly as the playwright talks mawkishly about "new friends." There are some sentimental recollections of childhood innocence, but as an autobiographical play, we learn very little about the subject's life and work. Along the way, though, the play offers a number of surprises (which won't be divulged here) and a few bits of audience participation (also involving tomatoes).

Most interestingly, the play hints at the limits of communication and overcoming obstacles in translation. He says, "It's strange to listen to yourself while trying to express your feelings in another language. It's even stranger to listen to someone who's trying to speak your language."

If Nassim lacks the dark undertones of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, there is a sense of aching longing just under the surface. The theatre, Soleimanpour suggests, is a place to articulate those feelings even when those gathered do not speak the same language.

Through April 20
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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