“Nassim,” a play by Iranian playwright and performer Nassim Soleimanpour, is deliberately disorienting, both for the audience, who’s told virtually nothing about the show beforehand, and for the “guest” actor, who is different for each performance. I saw it with Linda Emond, who was given the script for the first time as the show began, without any rehearsal or even any previous discussion.
But if “Nassim” is an example of what you can call trickster theater, with lots of teasing, it winds up not just clever, but charming, and even warm-hearted. And it offers several lessons, both literal and emotional, that illustrate how language can serve as both barrier and bridge between strangers.
The performance I saw began with someone (again a different person each performance) introducing Emond, who is a veteran New York stage actor and a familiar face on TV and in the movies. Here’s her face
She was handed an envelope, told that the script was inside, and that she should start reading it aloud from the first line.
“There’s only one page in this envelope!” Emond said (reading from that one page in the envelope.) “And on this page, it is written that I should face the screen and clap once.”
And so she did. What appeared on the screen was a close-up of a pair of hands over a page with the first of an hour’s worth of English sentences written on it. The actress was to read aloud all sentences that appeared on the screen, except the ones in italics. These were supposedly stage directions. But this turned into a kind of conversation between the English-speaking actress and the silent playwright, communicating through the printed words, which (we had been told) were translated from Farsi.
This gimmick allowed for all sorts of playful and funny exchanges. It was also the means by which the actress told us a story – first about a boy who couldn’t read yet, but wanted to, and then about the adult Nassim, who now lives in exile from his native Iran, and travels the world. His plays have never been performed in Farsi.
At one point, Emond told the story of how Nassim’s mother would try to teach him to read “his very first words in Farsi. If he couldn’t read a word or mispronounced it, his mum would make him eat a tomato.”
It’s not long before a plate of tomatoes appears on stage, and there is a call for volunteers from the audience, in what turns out to be something of an amusing re-creation of his childhood lessons.
I don’t want to describe much more about “Nassim,” since part of the delight of this show is the unpredictable way in which it unfolds. I do want to mention one of the surprises, although it’s not quite a spoiler, since the photographs already make it clear: We eventually realize that the playwright is filming these pages, and his hands, live backstage. He doesn’t stay backstage, though he never says a word aloud. But Nassim Soleimanpour doesn’t have to. “Nassim” says it all for him.
Barrow Street Theatricals at City Center
Written by Nassim Soleimanpour
Directed by Omar Eleria
Set by Rhys Jarman, sound design by James Swadlo, lighting design by Rajiv Pattani,
Running time: 75 minutes
Tickets: $69 to $90
Nassim is scheduled to run through April 20, 2019