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A CurtainUp Review

Your eyes are like stars. — Cush Jumbo
Nassim Soleimanpour (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's no news that actors must possess a good deal of pluck to tread the New York boards. But how many actors are willing to perform in a two-hander with no rehearsal?

Well, with the arrival of Iranian-writer Nassim Soleimanpour's play Nassim at New York City Center's Stage II, New York actors now have the chance to go through that theatrical eye of the needle.

Here's the conceit: An unrehearsed guest actor performing the show is introduced on stage and handed a script in a sealed envelope. Sound as scary as going over Niagara Falls in a barrel? You betcha. But then a willingness to take risks is a prerequisite for stepping in to this show that hovers between masochism and dramatic weight-lifting.

Cush Jumbo was the guest actor at the Sunday evening performance I attended during previews. Jumbo, dressed in casual attire and sneakers, looked more than ready to take the stage. And she performed like a champ throughout.

Soleimanpour's play demands that an actor have a quick wit, and the ability to be totally in the moment no matter what transpires on stage. Like his earlier absurdist adventure White Rabbit, Red Rabbit (it ran for nine months and created quite a sensation at the West Side Theatre in 2016), Nassim largely relies on a guest actor's voice to project authority and shape the meaning of the work.

Once taken out of the sealed envelope, the script is projected on a large screen on stage, and it becomes the guest actor's Herculean task to read it verbatim—and literally enact it for the audience.

Soleimanpour has tucked some curve balls into his script. For instance, Jumbo was breezily reciting the text until she got to a prompt that instructed her NOT to read any printed italics. Fair play? Actually, yes. These built-in silent pauses dramatically serve the work. Besides adding meaty subtext, they mercifully allowed Jumbo to catch her breath,and the audience a chance to see the double-layered language.

The play has two acts and is essentially a brief history of the playwright's life up to the point at which we meet him in his own play. Sound non-conventional? It unapologetically is.

Whereas the whole performance is entertaining, I must confess that the conceit wears a bit thin. In Act 1, there's fun for all as the author (off-stage) teaches his guest basic words and phrases in Farsi; also the Mad hatter-like tea party at mid-point that occurs off-stage but is cleverly captured on video and projected on the screen.

But when Soleimanpour entry on stage at the top of Act 2, the playwright's entry seems to make the work lose momentum. True, his role as author is clearly outlined and his biographical chronicle unfolding on the screen justifies his presence on stage. Even so, he needs to do more than play himself for his Act 2 to catch fire.

What did come across in spades at my performance was the respect and good will that gradually grew between Jumbo and the playwright. At the end she was moved to tears. At start out as a gimmick but gained true gravitas in this global-themed drama.

Nassim received its world premiere at the Bush Theatre in London in July 2017. The current Barrow Street Theatrical production arrived in New York (American premiere) just in time for the holidays. But its message about the power of language to connect people in unsettled times will mean something long after the holidays are gone.

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