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Theatre in Review: White Rabbit Red Rabbit (Westside Theatre)

White Rabbit Red Rabbit has the most bizarre premise of the season. At the top of the show, the producers, Devlin Elliott and Tom Kirdahy, enter and introduce the evening's star -- in the case of the performance I attended, Wayne Brady -- who is given an envelope containing the script, which he or she has never seen before. And so the play begins.

It is the conceit of the playwright, Nassim Soleimanpour, that star meets script his opening night. (In psychiatric parlance, this is known as the actor's nightmare.) Even so, White Rabbit Red Rabbit makes more demands on its star than that: There is a considerable amount of audience interaction; for example, a few minutes in, Brady had the audience count off, one by one. I am not the first to point out that ten minutes of a 75-minute evening are spent listening to the audience count up to 237 -- the number indicating a sellout at the Westside Theatre's downstairs venue.

It will surprise very few that Brady made a most amusing companion: One of the show's conventions is that the star can depart from the script by raising a hand, and for the first half of the show he provided a steadily amusing running commentary on his predicament. (He cannot be said to be breaking character, as White Rabbit Red Rabbit has no plot, no characters, and only one action that can be termed meaningful, depending on how you look at it.) The performer gleefully mocked his discomfort at flying blind, enlisting audience members with the skill that comes from hosting game shows like Let's Make a Deal. When the script required him to call up on stage several people, separating most of them into a group of "white rabbits" and singling out one as a "red rabbit," he noted sardonically that he guessed the author never imagined "a brother" taking part in such activity.

At least, for the first half of its running time, Brady provided a fair amount of amusement. The star, in addition to his work as an actor - he just came off a stint in Kinky Boots -- was a featured player on the improv comedy series Whose Line Is It, Anyway?, an experience that, I imagine, stood him in good stead here. But why am I telling you this? The only thing that seems certain about White Rabbit Red Rabbit is that it must be a very different experience depending on its star. Surely the likes of Cynthia Nixon, Kyra Sedgwick, and the distinguished Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo -- all of whom are scheduled to appear in the near future -- will approach the material in a more serious way. (About halfway through, the laughter dies down as the script takes over, for reasons that the producers have respectfully requested remain undiscussed.) Then again, given the way Brady overwhelms the material, such accomplished comic actors as Martin Short, David Hyde Pierce, and Alan Cumming, who are also scheduled to appear in the coming weeks, may not be ideal, either.

Soleimanpour is an Irani, and I'm sure there's more to the script than is initially apparent -- it has the sound of an act of social criticism written in a highly coded way, in order to get around censors -- but, at least at the performance I attended, the star's solid comedy instincts were so at war with the playwright's objective that it was almost impossible to focus on the latter. Soleimanpour has been quoted as saying that it is about "a social phenomenon known as obedience," which makes sense given the events of the play's second half. But this is the point where the script fails to compel; the action ultimately involves a life-or-death situation, but we know that no one is going to harm Wayne Brady, so there is no suspense. From the halfway point onward, White Rabbit Red Rabbit seems like an increasingly pointless exercise in extra-theatrical techniques.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit has reportedly been staged all over the world, and yet I suspect its success has more to do with star power than anything in the script. Fans of any of the names mentioned above may be entertained by spending an hour with one of their favorites in a rather novel context. But I fear that the author's intention travels very badly indeed. -- David Barbour


(11 April 2016)

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