THE NEW YORK TIMES: Actors Are Cast in a Play, No Rehearsals Required


For all I know, as I write these words, Nathan Lane is lying dead on a chaise longue on the stage of the Westside Theater.

Probably not. You would have read the obituary by now. But Mr. Lane, who gave the first New York performance of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” a playful, enigmatic and haunting solo show by the Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour, was lying supine on that chaise when I left the theater as strictly instructed Monday night, the only night of the week the show is being presented. The play concludes with the ominous suggestion that — well, perhaps I shouldn’t say any more.

The novelty — or gimmick, or both — of “White Rabbit” is that the actor performing the show does not have a chance to read it before arriving at the theater. He (or she) is handed the script onstage, before us, with no prior knowledge of its contents (unless, of course, he or she has already Googled it and got a general sense of what is in store). Every week, a different actor will perform the 75-minute piece. The list of upcoming performers, a diverse and distinguished lot, includes Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy and Cynthia Nixon. (Check the show’s website to see who is performing when.)

Mr. Lane, I am tempted to say, could hardly be bettered. Mr. Soleimanpour’s play allows for interpolations and ad-libs from the actor performing it (Mr. Lane raised his hand when he was departing from the text) and nobody but nobody has a quicker wit and a more deft ability to joust merrily with the audience than he does. When handed a mysterious vial of powder at the start, he quipped, “It’s the ’80s again!”

After a reference to audience participation — a not insignificant element — he joked that this was, for him, a blight on the world somewhere between incest and folk-dancing. And perhaps the only tedious passage of the show comes up front, when the audience is counted, or rather counts itself, one by one; thank God, I cracked to myself, aping Mr. Lane, we were not in the voluminous Gershwin Theater. (A tip for those who share Mr. Lane’s aversion: Most of the people conscripted for larger roles came from the first couple of rows, or participated voluntarily.)


Reviewers have been admonished not to give away much about what transpires during these 75 minutes, so my hands are tied, to a certain degree. Maybe this is appropriate, since the play comments implicitly on the strictures that all artists — indeed, all citizens — in Iran and other authoritarian states must confront and negotiate on a daily basis.

Authoritarian regimes do not allow for freedom of artistic expression, of course. So among the shivery aspects of the play is the ghostly presence of the writer — absent and present, simultaneously — and ever in danger of being silenced, whether by the oppression of the country’s rulers or, more darkly, the anguish and despair that this can induce. (The program notes that by the time Mr. Soleimanpour was allowed to travel outside Iran, in 2013, “White Rabbit,” his first play, had been performed more than 200 times in 15 languages.)

The play also addresses obliquely — and you soon become aware that writers living in repressive cultures must cloak their ideas in symbols — the oppression of women in some Muslim nations; the alienation that living in such cultures can engender; and the universal human tendency to obey authority, whether it’s the laws under which people must live, or the text and directions an actor (or an audience member) has just been handed and told to perform.

Among the things I will say is that the actor performing the play is required to portray one animal playing another (no, not a rabbit), and that the play is a conversation among playwright, performer and audience, a conversation that, for all its diverting humor, takes on a gravity that prickles your skin when we are reminded that the author might not have the freedom to even see the performance we are watching. Exhortations to send him an email (we are given the address) enhance the sense of his disconnection from the wider world.

The title in fact refers to an experiment supposedly performed by the writer’s uncle, in which hungry rabbits had to compete for a lone carrot. This was another metaphor, to be read in any number of ways, for the brutality and divisiveness that living under an authoritarian regime may induce, but more broadly a general comment on human behavior.

I’ll admit that I got a bit perplexed during the extensive discussion of the white rabbits and the red rabbits. Some other passages slide perilously close to pretentiousness, and much is shrouded in obscurity and frisky quirkiness. But Mr. Soleimanpour’s elliptical play keeps taking odd, unexpected turns that often lead us back to the relief of laughter.

Any worthy theatrical experience is, on some level, a dive down into a rabbit hole, where the destination is unknown, even if we know the play well. The distinction of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is that the performer moves right alongside us on the journey.


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