The nice thing about the modern fairytale is that even when it’s not particularly affecting, the presentation’s always worth the price of admission. I thought this about Devil Land; I feel the same about Arabian Night, The Play Company’s import from prolific German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. The script, which bounces back and forth between the thoughts of five mysteriously drawn-together tenants on a hot and magical night, comes across largely as wordplay—more a narrative trick than a necessity. Furthermore, Schimmelpfennig’s disparate blend of comedic drama often causes the one to obscure the other (as if the revolving narrative wasn’t already dizzying enough). And yet, while some might object to the sudden twist that places one character inside a bottle of brandy, and another in the middle of an Arabian desert, others might allow themselves to be entertained by the stupefying absurdity of it—a circus of the uncanny.
Would that Schimmelpfennig’s script made more of the premise, or that his endless devices actually worked their way to a resolution. Because they don’t, the play ends up with a limited scope (which is how I feel about other Schimmelpfennig works, like The Woman Before) and a mostly dispassionate set of characters running in circles through the circus’s three rings. So far as this big top imagery goes, director Trip Cullman makes for a brilliant ringleader, and the imaginative leaps of the script force him to be innovative (whereas with Dog Sees God, he was simply stilted and mundane).
Boxed in on three sides by the audience, Louisa Thompson’s three-dimensional, multi-leveled set is an amalgam of various parts of the apartment complex, each bleeding into the other, a bit like the Pompidou building. The scope of the stage succeeds where the script does not, and makes everything seem so much more important than it is. It also allows for some nifty physical feats, like a climactic chase through the hallways. In addition, thanks largely to Lenore Doxsee’s spot-on lighting, the performers also take on a larger-than-life presence, important for the jigsaw-like scenes that overlap one another. (In particular, Brandon Miller, who plays the bookish, doomed Peter Karpati, becomes arresting once he takes on a greenish glow and has an echo added to his voice.)
As I said before, Cullman’s orchestration of all the different tiers of action and design brings out his Broadway potential, even as Schimmelpfennig’s script persists in slowing down all the action. The cast needs to pick up their cues—that’s true—but even if they did this sixty-five-minute show in fifty-five, there’d still be a lot of dead space. For all the boundary-pushing narrative, Schimmelpfennig is careful not to take his idea where it needs to be: five truly overlapping narratives, filled with real missed connections, rather than neatly shelved moments.
A real fairytale has a moral—most often a warning—but Arabian Night seems determined to do without, intent on deconstructing itself. Allow me to supply one: all that glitters is golden, but you can’t take it with you.
East Thirteenth Street Theater (136 East 13th Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $35.00
Performances: Monday-Saturday @ 8:00 / Saturday @ 2:00
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.