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Theatre in Review: Wish You Were Here (Playwrights Horizons)

Marjan Neshat, Roxanna Hope Radja. Photo: Joan Marcus

In the theatre, context is everything. Wish You Were Here opens with a gathering of five female friends, assembled to assist one of them on her wedding day. The lively, overlapping conversation touches on all sorts of issues: the heat, the physical restrictions of an enormous bridal gown, and -- surprisingly, given some of the raunchy comments about women's genitalia -- what to expect on the big night, with the married ladies having much to say about the first-time sexual experience (i.e., it gets better). The bride is even quizzed as to whether she has seen a man's penis; the answer is an emphatic no.

If all this sounds a tad confounding, let me add that Wish You Were Here is set in the Iranian city of Karaj, beginning 1978 and continuing, year by year, until 1991. The location and time frame speak for themselves; under all the quotidian chatter are hints of a world in upheaval. Shideh, a medical student, wants to fast-track her degree, saying, "There's a pit in my stomach. The protests. And the -- there's static in the air." A year later, when she worriedly notes that the Shah has fled the country, Nazanin, who is studying engineering, insists, "It will all blow over in a year." The happy-go-lucky Zari, adds, hopefully, "Change is good, right?"

By 1980, the women are huddled together; the curtains are closed, and the room is illuminated by candlelight. The country is at war with Iraq, which explains the sirens wailing in the distance. Even so, life goes on; as everyone chats about missile strikes and when and if the universities will reopen, a lively backgammon game is in progress. Zari, hiding under a coffee table, hits her head, setting off a round of snickers. And, even in war, the women focus largely on personal matters. "Just because there's a war doesn't mean we have to be boring," Nazanin notes. Still, one by one, the members of this tightly knit circle fade away. The first to go is Rana, who is Jewish, vanishing so quickly with her family that they leave behind dishes in the sink. This is a blow to Nazanin, as she and Rana had dreamed about escaping to a new life in Miami. (Indeed, you might briefly wonder if they are lovers; then again, for all five characters, even those with husbands, men barely seem to register.) By 1991, only will one be left, the others fleeing to new lives or, in one case, passing away in a grotesque accident caused by the strict new religious restrictions.

In a funny way, Wish You Were Here is reminiscent of Jack Heifner's Vanities, another play in which seemingly trivial matters are backgrounded by enormous social changes happening offstage. But, unlike Heifner, who enjoys spoofing blinkered attitudes, playwright Sanaz Toossi records with remarkable poignancy the details of her characters' ever-diminishing lives. The little things are the most telling: Their clothing becomes increasingly modest, the record player disappears (music is forbidden), and career hopes are quietly suppressed. And, as they disperse, Nazanin, who stays behind, grows bitter. "I don't feel sorry for them," she says. "I mostly feel this, like, thing in my throat and when it rises, the rest of the day feels long." A new acquaintance adds, "I feel sorry for them. They're castaways."

Is Nazanin's rage justified? Is her friend's pity accurate? These questions lurk underneath everything that happens in Wish You Were Here. It's a slippery, elusive work, delicate on the surface but rock-solid in its construction. To be sure, it is less accomplished than English, Toossi's debut play, seen at Atlantic Theater a few months ago. At times, the conversation veers toward the excessively banal and, among other things, one could do without two separate incidents of furniture accidentally stained by menstrual blood. Also, Arnulfo Maldonado's beautifully detailed living room set is a bit of a mystery: Is it Nazanin's home? Is it a stand-in for more than one location? Where, exactly, are we?

Still, the director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, has assembled an accomplished ensemble led by the fast-rising Marjan Neshat as Nazanin, whose life devolves into a series of compromises and disappointments. (Her hopes for a career subsumed by a loveless marriage, she busies herself as a seamstress, passing the time watching Turkish soap operas on television.) Also fine is Nikki Massoud as Zari, especially in a wrenching parting scene with Nazanin; Artemis Pebdani as Shideh, who, despite her jolly manner, is the first to pick up the signals of trouble brewing; Roxanna Hope Radja as Salme, the most overtly religious of the group; and Nazanin Nour as Rani, whose climactic encounter with Nazanin, years after their separation, elegantly illustrates the play's central dilemma, that whether the characters flee or stay put, something of their souls must be sacrificed.

In addition to Maldonado's atmospheric set, Sarah Laux's costumes take note of the rising pressures on women to follow religious standards. To indicate the passage of time, lighting designer Reza Behjat cleverly sends a moving block of white light across the set between scenes. The sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar and Brian Hickey includes thunderstorms, car horns, and crying babies; they also provide first-rate amplification for Brandon Terzic's melancholy piano underscoring.

Indeed, there is much to be melancholy about. "Being your best friend was my whole personality," Nazanin tells Rina near the end. "I miss being defined by who you were." It's a heartbreaking admission that speaks volumes about these women and their lives. Once again, Toossi opens a window on a society about which many of us know little or nothing, focusing on the passing of a way of life and obliquely revealing what the West looks like to those living outside its orbit. Thanks to her entirely original viewpoint, she may be the most interesting new writer to emerge this year. --David Barbour

(4 May 2022)

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