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Theater review by Helen Shaw
In his 2016 hit White Rabbit, Red Rabbit and now in the poignant little Nassim, the Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour uses a theatrically indirect process: He writes shows that can be delivered, impromptu, by a nightly guest actor, who arrives at the announced curtain time, opens an envelope and performs whatever is inside. For the audience, some of the thrill lies in seeing a star get tossed into the deep end, and in watching a normally polished actor being “real” and bashful and unrehearsed. But Soleimanpour himself is not self-effacing. This time, he has not only named his play after himself but has also given himself a costarring role. A guest actor—on the afternoon I saw it, it was Michael Shannon—shows up and begins following his directions, but soon evinces an overwhelming (scripted) need to meet the playwright, who emerges to tumultuous applause. Thus Soleimanpour creates a breathless anticipation for his own arrival. Multiple Oscar nominee Michael Shannon as hype man? Must be nice.
What follows is a gentle conversation between an actor reading cue cards and a playwright who never speaks. Soleimanpour’s method is savvy; the native Farsi speaker can tour his work all over the world, putting his translated words into the mouths of local heroes. It’s also, his script tells us, terribly sad. He regrets never being able to perform in his own home country, so he—through his guest actor—teaches us how to drink tea the Iranian way (with a sugar cube held between the teeth) as well as a few words of Persian. He shows us actual toys from his childhood, reminiscing about his own dawning relationship to language at his mother’s knee. In fact, his mother (mumun in Farsi) is the unseen third character; he misses her as keenly as he misses his mother tongue.
To some degree, the tenor of the show will depend on the guest actor you see. Shannon had a shy and kindly vibe, complete with shout-outs to his daughter in the audience, and I imagine there will be a somewhat larkish aspect to all of the guest performances, since the actors have signed up for a one-night stand. Soleimanpour’s dark sadness, on the other hand, is there every time. The show can be sweet, sometimes almost too sweet, but it’s like the sugar cube in the tea. In the moment that the cute part dissolves, you taste the bitterness beneath.
New York City Center Stage II (Off Broadway). By Nassim Soleimanpour. Directed by Omar Elerian. With Soleimanpour and guest actor. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.
[Note: Among the guest actors scheduled to participate in the show's final weeks in April are Phillipa Soo, Emma Ishta, Andrew Roffe, Peter Jacobson, Allyn Burrows, Greg Kotis, John Rothman, Will Eno, Todd Almond, Noah Galvin, Steven Boyer, Sally Murphy, Michael Patrick Thornton, Ashley Park, Jeremy Shamos, Bernard White, Lee Pace, Sarah Goldberg, Michael Stahl-David, Mark Hattan and Carla Gugino.]