It’s fun watching an actor sweat. It’s also very entertaining, and it happens during every performance of the new play by Nassim Soleimanpour. The Iranian-born playwright has made a specialty of keeping performers on their toes. His White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, seen off-Broadway two years ago, featured a different actor at every performance, many of them major names, reading from a script they were seeing for the first time.
His latest work, eponymously titled Nassim, revolves around a similar gimmick. A guest star again reads from a newly revealed script. The difference is that the playwright is now on hand to guide them through the experience. The results are uneven, but at its best the evening is as exhilarating for the audience as it surely must be for the guest performers.
The experience will necessarily be different at every performance depending on the guest star. I was fortunate enough to see Cush Jumbo, the acclaimed British actress whose New York theater credits include The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park, Julius Caesar at St. Ann’s Warehouse and Broadway’s The River opposite Hugh Jackman. She also has made a name for herself with her recurring roles on the television series The Good Wife and its spinoff The Good Fight.
The guest performers read from the script (minus the stage directions, of course) projected on a screen, as its pages are moved by disembodied hands. Jumbo struggled for a few minutes with how to see the screen behind her while also keeping her face visible to the audience surrounding her on three sides. But she quickly settled into a groove and had the audience in the palm of her hand.
The play’s theme, a meditation on how foreign languages divide us, slowly comes into focus. It seems that while Soleimanpour’s plays have been performed in dozens of languages worldwide, they’ve never been performed in Farsi in his native country because of governmental repression. The situation particularly distresses him because his mother, who still lives in Iran, has never heard or seen one of her son’s plays performed in her language.
It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal all the surprises in store. The playwright himself eventually joins his guest performer onstage, although he remains a mostly silent, affable presence. Both the guest actor and several audience members are given a crash course in Farsi and invited to learn various phrases which eventually combine to form a short fable.
Nassim (the play, not the author) is perhaps too slight; it runs 75 minutes and feels insubstantial. There’s also an inevitable gimmicky aspect to the proceedings that sometimes crosses over into cutesiness. But the piece, which ends with a sweet, seemingly impromptu encounter that provides an emotional underpinning to the preceding playfulness, is touching and funny. It also proves relatable despite its very personal aspects.
Jumbo was charming and gamely enthusiastic going through her paces, approaching the challenge with a disarming combination of seriousness and good humor. (“What’s my motivation here?” she ad-libbed at one point.) But she took her duties very seriously, and when she wiped away tears at the show’s conclusion, you could tell she wasn’t acting.
Obviously, the play will be different every time, so audience members are taking their chances. But considering that the first week’s guests included such estimable performers as Michael Shannon, John Gallagher Jr., Linda Emond and Obie winners Kate Arrington, Michael Chernus and Gary Wilmes, among others, it seems a gamble worth taking.
Venue: NY City Center Stage II, New York
Playwright: Nassim Soleimanpour
Cast: Nassim Soleimanpour, “A Guest Actor”
Director: Omar Elerian
Set designer: Rhys Jarman
Lighting designer: Rajiv Pattani
Sound designer: James Swadlo
Production: Nassim Soleimanpour, Bush Theatre
Presented by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian, Tom Wirtshafter, Marc & Lisa Baker, Richard Fishman, Mary Lu Roffe, Hugh Surratt, Greg Hale