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Theatre in Review: One Thousand Nights and One Day/Goldstein

Top: Ben Steinfeld, Ashkan Davaran. Photo: Richard Termine. Bottom: Megan McGinnis, Zal Owen. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Two new musicals are founded on the power of stories to shape our lives. Now at Ars Nova, Prospect Theatre Company's One Thousand Nights and One Day, based on Jason Grote's well-received 2007 play, 1001, adopts an unusual mirror structure: One half recounts the tale of Scheherazade, who uses her narrative skills to keep at bay her new husband, the ruler Shahriyar, who has a bad habit of killing his brides after their wedding night. (This is his entirely original way of preventing adultery.) One of the stories she spins is set in contemporary Manhattan (known here as "Man Hat"), focusing on Alan, a Jewish college student, who falls for Dahna, who was born in Gaza and grew up in Kuwait. The same actors play both couples; both narratives feature a sister who plays a decisive role, a one-eyed man, infidelity, and death.

It is, to say the least, an intriguing concept, but, in execution, it is both overstuffed and unsatisfying: The show wants to say something about women's rights, Middle Eastern politics, religious traditions, and Orientalism. Apropos of the last, Jorge Luis Borges himself shows up to make the point that The Thousand and One Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland and then translated back into Arabic, and into English by Richard F. Burton. He adds, "Sometimes it is not the translation that is unfaithful to the original but the original that is unfaithful to the translation. Do you understand?"

Well, not exactly, and, with a running time of one hour and forty minutes and a score that is often quite beautiful but often deficient in illuminating the plot and characters, both halves of the musical's bifurcated narrative feel undercooked. Grote is so interested in connecting the dots between his stories that he forgets to make them compelling.

This is especially so of the Scheherazade narrative, which plays like a series of revue sketches and strains to make humor out of Shahriyar's serial-killer ways. For no obvious reason, he is given to malapropisms, such as telling one alarmed bride, "Do not fear me. I am genital, gentile, no, gentle." A visit to the morgue where he keeps the decaying bodies of his late wives reveals little more than the fact that the stench is awful. During a conference with his wazir, he is brought a box containing the head of a late wife. (Decapitation is his preferred method of dispatch.) He opens it and inhales the aroma of her hair. As statements about the treatment of women, these are much too obvious; as black humor, they miss the mark.

The modern story is much more interesting, even if it wants more development. Alan meets Dahna at a campus event, where she tangles with the Israeli apologist Alan Dershowitz over the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement. Trying too hard to show off his cultural sensitivity -- and insisting that he isn't a reflexive supporter of Israel, he embarrasses himself. "I'm not making you aware of your otherness, am I?" he offers, in his version of a politically correct pickup line.

Nevertheless, Alan and Dahna move in together, and, for a time, all seems idyllic. But the pull of her ethnic and cultural identity -- as well as the disapproval of her family -- cause the relationship to suffer. (Interestingly, things start to fall apart after a visit to Gaza, which was initiated by Alan; the trip that he imagined would bring them closer together becomes the wedge that will separate them permanently.) There is, potentially, the stuff of a full-length play here, about a couple who can't get past socially constructed ideas of each other's cultures. Dahna's complicated history makes one want to know more about her, and, since we never learn a thing about Alan's life, he could certainly benefit from additional detail. But their story is cut off by a terrorist bombing that makes Manhattan uninhabitable. Throughout One Thousand Nights and One Day, Grote's use of violent and cataclysmic events seems tasteless and manipulative, and his two-pronged narrative is too frail to contain them.

The score benefits from some haunting melodies by Marisa Michelson, who has clearly found her singular voice as a composer. But the lyrics are frequently banal and given to restating the obvious. (There is one attractive ballad, "Sunset Song," and another, "The Chat Song," which shows how romance can be kindled via the Internet.) At times, the book doesn't really make sense. At one point, Shahriyar insists to his wazir, "I have no designs on your daughters Scheherazade or Dunyazade." A couple of pages later, Scheherazade is getting ready for her honeymoon with him.

Under Erin Ortman's direction, which makes good use of the purple curtains that shape and reshape Jason Ardizzone-West's set, the action shuttles swiftly and easily between the two narratives. Sepideh Moafi impresses as Scheherazade and Dahna, creating two very different, but equally intelligent and compelling, characterizations. There is little to be done with the role of Shahriyar, but Ben Steinfeld does his best, and he creates a sympathetic profile for Alan. Both performers are blessed with beautiful singing voices. Also fine are Chad Goodridge as a wealthy Arab financier who woos Dahna via Internet chat, Yassi Noubahar as a pair of interfering siblings, and Graham Stevens as the One-Eyed Arab, who sardonically provides a geography lesson about Iran, lest we products of the American education system think the show is set in Canada or someplace.

Carolyn Wong's lighting provides a compendium of looks covering both time frames and various emotional states; Becky Bodurtha's costumes contrast amusing bits of Orientalia with contemporary styles; and Jeremy J. Lee's sound design provides solid, not-too-intrusive reinforcement along with such effects as room-shaking rumbles, gunfire, and a rather upsetting explosion. But one suspects that in musicalizing his play, Grote may have thinned out his original material to a distressing degree. There's real talent in One Thousand Nights and One Day, but no solid framework to support it.

In contrast to the cultural politics and narrative game-playing of One Thousand Nights and One Day, Goldstein, currently at the Actor's Temple, is about the brouhaha caused by the airing of a family's history. "Somebody should be writing these things down," says Zelda -- housewife, store owner, and matriarch of the Goldstein clan. Well, her grandson, Louis, does just that, and he wins a Pulitzer for it; he also manages to upset his relatives, both living and dead. Goldstein consists of his tale, with everyone else weighing in, kibitzing, and criticizing.

The story Louis tells is, in many ways, a standard narrative of immigrants arriving on Ellis Island, going into business, and thriving as subsequent generations make their way up the social ladder. It's also a story of shameful secrets, frustrated romances, and children whose lives are marred by their selfish and/or insensitive parents. Zelda marries Louie (most assuredly her second choice) and they start a clothing business in New Jersey. They have two children, Nathan, who becomes a psychiatrist, but never deals with the self-loathing and insecurity that plague his life, and Sherri, whose career and romantic dreams come to nothing. Nathan's son, Louis, learns to view his family with a critical eye, in part because he is gay, a fact that pleases nobody.

There's rich material here, but Charlie Schulman's book is too sketchy and Michael Roberts' songs rely on basic melodies and even more basic rhymes. To be fair, there's an eleventh-hour plot twist that nobody in the audience at my performance -- me included -- saw coming, given the gasp it caused. There are also a couple of solid numbers, "Visiting Your Mother," a spikily amusing lament sung by Nathan's fed-up wife, Eleanor (and done to a turn by Sarah Beth Pfeifer, who plays her), and "Have You Met My Parents," a bit of entertaining sibling sparring between Louis and his much-more-complaisant sister, Miriam.

If the director, Brad Rouse, can't make anything urgent or compelling out of these family stories, his cast is reasonably solid. Louis isn't much of a role, but Zal Owen has a superb voice that makes his songs seem better than they are. Last seen as an adolescent in Daddy Long Legs, Megan McGinnis spends much of the show as the octogenarian Sherri; now that's versatility. Amie Bermowitz transcends the role of Zelda, a stereotypical Jewish mother, giving her interesting shadings. Jim Stanek is fine as Louie, even if his character's supposed Trotskyite leanings never come into focus.

The production's design elements are pretty basic, although the lighting designer, Andrew F. Griffin, manages a few nice effects and Raymond Schilke's sound design is reasonably natural. But this complex saga is too cursorily treated to really come to life. For all their tsuris, the Goldsteins aren't as interesting as they seem to think. -- David Barbour

(16 April 2018)

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