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One Thousand Nights and One Day

Clever idea to combine the tales of the Arabian Nights and a contemporary Palestinian/Jewish story in a new musical becomes muddled as it also reaches for a bleak future.

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Ben Steinfeld and Sepideh Moafi in a scene from “One Thousand Nights and One Day” (photo credit: Richard Termine)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Although Prospect Theater Company’s new musical One Thousand Nights and One Day has a clever idea buried in it, in its present form it is both muddled and confusing. The problem may be in its subtitle: “a postmodern musical fantasy.” Attempting to deal with current Palestinian/Jewish relations, this new musical time travels between ancient Persia at the time of the Arabian Night tales and a New York of the future here called Man Hat. Often in the same scene, the main characters Queen Scheherazade/Dahna (Sepideh Moafi) and King Shahriyar/Alan are in two time frames simultaneously. The political and literary talk (Alan Dershowitz and Jorge Luis Borges put in appearances) bogs down the story without giving it more weight.

With book and lyrics by Jason Grote (based on 1001, his 2007 play), One Thousand Nights and One Day with music by Marisa Michelson wants to be several things at the same time. The eclectic music which begins and ends with New Age themes then resolves into Broadway, pop, solfege, and Middle Eastern melodies with a certain amount of operatic arias for the women singers thrown in. Like the story and the libretto, it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. While the ancient Persian section suggests an exotic locale to Americans, the physical production created by set designer Jason Ardizzone-West (mainly dark curtains) and costume designer Becky Bodurtha is drab where it should be colorful. A more elaborate design would have helped immeasurably to define the different eras and locations.

Ben Steinfeld and Ashkon Davaran in a scene from “One Thousand Nights and One Day” (photo credit: Richard Termine)

Narrated by the One-Eyed Arab, (interestingly played by Graham Stevens), who is not as funny as his lines suggest he thinks he is, the musical begins with the story of Persian King Shahriyar (Ben Steinfeld) who catches his wife in flagrante  with a slave and has her killed. Wanting to avoid such an occurrence again, he decides to marry young virgins and behead them in the morning after the wedding night. Eventually, the only unmarried women left are the Wazir’s two daughters. However, Scheherazade (Sepideh Moafi) has an idea: she will marry the king and tell him stories every night but refuse to finish them before falling asleep.

Her second story, “The Tale of Alan in his Labyrinth” takes her literally to the modern city of Man Hat where Shahriyar and Scheherazade meet again at an Alan Dershowitz lecture at Columbia University. Steinfeld is now Alan, a Jewish man, and Moafi becomes Dahna, a Palestinian woman. After they go on a trip to Gaza, they move in together back home only to find her parents trying to match her up with a suitable Arab man. Eventually Man Hat is bombed and they are separated by the devastation. The musical ends with a call for unity between Arab and Jew in our times.

Ben Steinfeld and Graham Stevens in a scene from “One Thousand Nights and One Day” (photo credit: Richard Termine)

In performance, One Thousand Nights and One Day is a like a play with songs shoehorned in as none of them forward the story but take the emotional temperature of the characters instead. With all of the actors playing at least two parts, modern and ancient, with little costume change, it is often difficult to be certain where we are at any moment. Some play very similar characters, others play against their earlier incarnation. Erin Ortman’s direction is assured with the characterizations but she cannot solve the problems inherent in the writing.

In the double role of King Shahriyar and Alan, Steinfeld is bland and nerdy as both men which does not differentiate between the two. Moafi is much more assertive and confident as Scherazade/Dahna, and one wishes the musical was more about her. Stevens wisecracks his way through the roles of the narrator (One-Eyed Arab) and the Palestinian translator Mostafa due to lines he has been given. Yassi Noubahar makes a fine impression as Scheherazade’s nervous sister, and later Dahna’s trivial sister Lubna in modern times. The rest of the cast (Ashkon Davaran, Chad Goodridge, and Gabriella Pérez) appear in many roles both ancient and modern. Playwright Jason Grote and composer Marisa Michelson have an interesting idea but One Thousand Nights and One Day does not solve the problems they have set themselves.

One Thousand Nights and One Day (through April 29, 2018)

Prospect Theater Company

ART/New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.prospecttheater.org

Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (485 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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