nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 29, 2007
You are not who you think you are. You are an invention of men from lands as far away as the ones to which your adventures have taken you.
So says Jorge Luis Borges to Sindbad the Seaman in one of the numerous vignettes contained within Jason Grote's ambitious onion of a play, 1001. The pairing of these two figures—one an actual (though deceased) writer, the other a fictional character from The Book of The Thousand Nights and One Night—is more fanciful than most that occur in this play, but this is the central, archetypal one, I think; and this quote, which leads into a fascinating and wise explanation (delivered by Borges) of the ways that stories spiral back on themselves through cultures and epochs, expresses the main idea of 1001.
Grote's play begins, nevertheless, with what feels like a fairly linear re-telling of the story of Scheherazade. The great Persian King Shahriyar, betrayed by his adulterous wife, vows to wed a different virgin bride every night of his life, whom he will then kill the following morning to prevent her from yielding to temptation and sin. Eventually, all the available women of the kingdom have been murdered save the daughters of the Wazir, Scheherazade and Dunyazade. Scheherazade conceives a crafty plan to keep the King from killing her: on her wedding night, she tells Shahriyar a spellbinding story, but stops short of its ending. He wants to know how the tale comes out, but she refuses to complete it and instead begins another. Eventually the king is too tired to consummate his vows or hear more stories, and Scheherazade lives until the next day...and the next story.
The legendary tales spin around and through one another, and suddenly skip forward into the future, where another set of tales begins. The contemporary segment of 1001, which proves to be the dominant one, involves a Jewish student named Alan and his relationship with a Palestinian woman named Dahna. They find themselves wrapped into events that they can't seem to control: her parents want her to marry a Muslim man named Asser, leading her to question her feelings for Alan; and then one day they find themselves caught in a massive terrorist attack that destroys much of Manhattan.
It's clever and even ingenious, the way that Grote's characters and plots mirror and comment on each other. But no larger point really emerges beyond the idea that the playwright puts into Borges's mouth. With its jokey anachronisms and audaciously apocalyptic details, 1001 feels like it's going to explain something important about the tide of history, but it never quite does. It is, instead, a play about stories and their potency. Interestingly, its outermost layer—the one where we in the audience are watching six actors perform—is not incorporated into the mix at all, yielding a sense of detachment that may not be in the show's best interest.
What made me so uneasy watching 1001 is the fact that the playwright keeps jumping on landmine after landmine, quite deliberately, in his text. To choose the book we call colloquially the Arabian Nights as source material; to choose a pair of lovers who are an American Jew and a Palestinian exile; to depict a terror attack not unlike 9/11—all of this bespeaks political motives that simply are not borne out in the piece. It feels like Grote is rattling a cage, but once he's gotten our attention, he fails to engage us in a meaningful or valuable way.
Ethan McSweeny's overly elaborate production perhaps heightens expectations more than it should. What probably ought to be an exercise in elegant story theatre is exploded here into a multimedia extravaganza, with environmental staging, live video, projections, music, and a plethora of set pieces that, literally, litter the aisles. (Be careful not to trip over pebbles as you make your way to your seat; and avoid the section at the rear of the auditorium, because it offers only a partial view of the proceedings.)
The cast of six—Mia Barron, Drew Cortese, Roxanna Hope, Jonathan Hova, Matthew Rauch, and John Livingstone Rolle—all deliver fine, strenuous performances. I was a little uncomfortable with the stereotypes conveyed by many of the characterizations, however.