By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 24, 2022: Remember the postman’s motto? “Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds.” These words could be paraphrased for actors, but they already have a classic phrase of their own: “The show must go on.” That concept has been sorely tested in recent months, with the unforgiving onslaught of Covid, although it was the flu that caused Billy Crystal to take a brief break from Mr. Saturday Night. When shows weren’t outright canceled or postponed because of outbreaks, they went on with understudies, some considered even better than those they replaced. But of all my recent encounters with replacement performers, the most unusual was at Sunday’s matinee of Sanaz Toosi’s Wish You Were Here at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
I have no idea why actress Nazanin Nour was out of the cast, but it was intriguing to see her covered by the playwright, Ms. Toosi herself, who, with her long, raven tresses and sculptured features, is as striking on stage as in her photographs. (Ms. Nour’s photos also show a black-haired beauty.) Her character, Rana, an Iranian Jew, appears in only the multi-scened play’s first and last acts, the latter on the phone, so there weren’t that many lines to remember, but she handled the part with effortless charm, although her voice is on the soft side.
Nor are Ms. Toosi’s playwriting skills in doubt; she has had a rather noteworthy New York season, first with English at the Atlantic Theatre Company, and now with Wish You Were Here, set like English, in the Iranian city of Karaj.Some will remember Wish You Were Here as the title of a 1952 musical comedy, set in the Catskills, and based on a 1937 play called Having a Wonderful Time. The latter title, in fact, matches the mood of the new play’s opening scene, set in 1978, when the Shah still ruled Iran.
In it, four 20-year-old Iranian women are in a bubbling tizzy surrounding the wedding that night of their equally excited friend, Salme (Roxanna Hope Radia), encased in a voluminous white gown. We meet the aforementioned Rani, glamorous in red silk pajamas, a cigarette dangling from her lips; Nazanin (Marjan Neshat, as good as she was in English), a civil engineering student Ms. Toosi describes as “sort of mean”; Zari (Nikki Massoud), the next one to be married; and Shideh (Artemis Pebdani), hoping to go abroad to study medicine.
Aside from a stray reference here and there, or an untranslated word or two in Farsi, there’s little seen or said that could not equally as well be taking place, for example, in Queens. Ms. Toosi, the California-raised daughter of Iranian immigrants, wants to demonstrate the earthy universality of her obviously Western-influenced characters’ concerns; despite profanity-sprayed American-English-style girl talk meant to be in Farsi, these women, for all their presumed virginity, are preoccupied with “dicks” and “pussies.” An excess of humorous allusions to the latter, especially, thread like a needle through the play. Apparently, these and related topics, like yeast infections and periods (two women stain the couch during the play), are what we’d hear if we were flies on the wall at the average women’s kaffee klatch (or whatever you’d call a gathering around chai or sharbat in Iran).
There are ten scenes, running chronologically from 1978 to 1985, each new year projected at the rear, with a four-year jump over 1986 to 1989, finishing with scenes in 1990 and 1991. All take place in the same conventional living room, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, with sliding doors to an upstage rose garden. The room, lovingly lit by Reza Behjat, is only slightly rearranged as the years go by, suggesting it could belong, in a particular scene, to any of the women; only in the 1990 and 1991 scenes does the script mention that we’re in the home of Nazanin. Without access to the script, you’d never know it though, as even the program avoids mentioning it.
Ms. Toosi’s cavalcade drama begins a year before the Shah of Iran was ousted by the hardline Islamic Revolution, followed by the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 (a.k.a. the First Gulf War). As it moves through these fraught years, we see both the development of the women’s friendships, and their dissolutions, partly because of the eventual departure to America of all but Nazanin. We hear the occasional siren, see the fear of possible missile strikes as characters hide (with comical results) under a table, hear of dreams about Saddam Hussein, learn of bomb shelters, notice the restrictions on radio music, view the wearing of black hijabs and long robes.
Nevertheless, the political situation intrudes only in the most indirect way, as the women navigate its shoals without polemical discussions. While this offers a patina of naturalism, theatregoers unfamiliar with the background—the program offers no help—will lose much of the work’s dramatic impact.
However dire the oppressive landscape, and its impact on these women (which, in Nazanin’s case means the abandonment of her engineering studies), Ms. Toosi avoids melodramatizing their lives. There is a mild suspense regarding the sudden disappearance of Rana and her family, whose Judaism is an obvious target under the Islamic regime; her absence shakes the group, one or two of whom try to find out what happened to her, since those who checked found her household undamaged. (A reference to the family Torah still being in its cupboard seems odd; very few but the wealthiest and most orthodox Jews would have their own Torah.)
In her understated way, Ms. Toosi brings out the poignancy of life under an oppressive regime, the stakes involved in staying behind or immigrating, the loneliness of losing one’s closest friends, and the rewards and responsibility of friendship. This is not to deny that the play’s string of pearls structure escapes longueurs; it doesn’t.
Director Gayle Taylor Upchurch has succeeded in having her thoroughly believable cast speak and act in conversational, yet mostly audible, tones, avoiding the overtly dramatic delivery that so often robs contemporary acting of veracity. She has helped craft a production of which, for all my caveats, I can honestly say, I wish you were here.
Wish You Were Here
Peter Jay Sharp Theater/Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 5, 2022
Photography: Joan Marcus