Through the Elevated Line
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In this update of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ a gay Iranian man struggles to contend with trauma and acceptance.
Assimilation is a hell of a drug. Even as many try to reckon with just how un-osmosed this country really is—at least compared to how they once idealized it—it’s also true that America has swallowed whole innumerable cultures, traditions, and peoples. The free market is great for that; no matter the color of a person’s skin, their money’s still green, same as anyone else’s.
But it’s more than just that; assimilation is really about survival. Everyone, after all, wants nothing more than to survive; and what better way to survive than to become indistinguishable from your surroundings? And what better way to threaten one’s own survival than to either refuse to fit in, or worse, be unable to do so?
And that’s where Razi (Salar Ardebili), the gay Iranian tourist-slash-refugee at the center of Novid Parsi’s Streetcar-styled world premiere Through the Elevated Line, goes wrong. Like Blanche DuBois, he cannot be anything but himself. Razi is a man scarred by his experiences under an oppressive regime; but then scarred might not be the right word, as it implies the wounds have healed.
As written by Parsi (a former Time Out Chicago staffer and theater critic), Razi’s wounds are still wide open and oozing, infecting the well-appointed life of his sister, Soraya (Catherine Dildilian), and her South Side Irish husband Chuck (Joshua J. Volkers). Like Blanche, it’s clear from the moment Ardebili enters, wearing sorrow like a heavy perfume. Poor Razi doesn’t stand a chance.
Directed here by Carin Silkaitis, Parsi’s play follows A Streetcar Named Desire very closely—at times too closely. If you’re familiar with Tennessee Williams’s plot, you can easily follow as the paint connects the numbers. Plot isn’t everything, of course, and Razi is a beautifully realized character—not just a fascinating study in iconoclasm, but also in the ways that worldview can poison a man’s life. He’s a painful reminder that, from the outside, PTSD is sometimes indistinguishable from being a dick.
The play is less successful when it comes to Soraya and Chuck, an upwardly mobile couple living in Uptown, which they’re quick to assure people is not as bad a neighborhood as it seems. (Gentrification is a fascinating, if mostly unexplored, sub-theme.) In fact, Chuck is remodeling their current home in order to flip it (meaning designerJoe Schermoly’s set slowly transforms from half-built construction zone to full HGTV-porn); Soraya, a naturalized Iranian citizen, is finishing out her dermatology residency.
All told, the characters simply lack the poetic depths of Stella and Stanley, coming across as a bit bougie, yes, but not terribly interesting. Volkers’s Chuck, especially, is a hothead and an alcoholic—at one point he gets belligerently drunk and elbows Soraya hard in the head—but as an antagonist he’s so ordinary and two-dimensional that he just ends up being dull. The audience is never once tempted to like him, or at least to understand why Soraya likes him.
Aside from Ardebili, who really is breathtakingly good, the most notable performance is Philip Winston as Razi’s potential love interest, Sean, a sweet, deep-pocketed corporate lawyer who neither deserves what Razi does to him nor earns what he does to Razi in return. Of all the “American” characters—Soraya included—Sean is most like a real person—thanks in part to Winston’s shy and nuanced charm, but also likely because Sean exists in contrast to Chuck and Chuck’s bro-y friends. Parsi is a wonderful writer, but his version of bro-speak comes off much like tin-eared white writers’ dialogue for people of color. (Don’t cry for the bros. They’ll be fine.)
Through the Elevated Line has its flaws, but it also has one key strength that’s seemingly in short supply these days: a very grounded understanding of how hard it is to try and do the right thing. For as much as Razi is a tragic figure, worthy of sympathy and understanding, he’s also kind of impossible. You can fault the rest for what they do to him, but you can’t say you don’t get it. It’s a question of survival.
Silk Road Rising. By Novid Parsi. Directed by Carin Silkaitis. With Salar Ardebili, Joshua J. Volkers, Catherine Dildilian, Phillip Winston, Christian Castro, Alison Plott, Scott Shimizu. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
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