On Monday night, along with 249 other people, I experienced a play that no one in the world will ever experience again. Well, not exactly. Because White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour — a dazzling, transcendent piece of alive-and-kicking avant-garde theater — is performed by a different lead actor or actress every time it’s staged. And there’s a reason for that, beyond the marketing gimmick. Which is that the play ends with the actor’s possible demise. Or is that the ultimate marketing gimmick?
For the show’s premiere in New York City, the performer on the first Monday night was the inimitable Nathan Lane. When the Broadway veteran (and current cast member on The People v. O.J. Simpson) arrived dressed in a black suit to the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street, on a set that Lane described as “the most depressing psychiatrist’s office in the world,” he was handed two items by a stage manager: a yellow manila folder containing the script and a small clear vial containing white powder. “Like the 80s,” Lane joked, gesturing towards the vial. “I know what to do with that.”
White Rabbit Red Rabbit, which Soleimanpour wrote in 2010 while prohibited from traveling outside his native Iran because of his conscientious objector status, has been performed in multiple countries and languages. Without discussing its many dazzling swings in tone, I’ll say that it is steeped in self-referencing and metaphorical tales about animals, and builds to several surprisingly emotional peaks about the shared experience of art. At one point, Lane asserted (via the script) that there was a beautiful woman smiling in the back row. The audience all at once turned to look. “Now every woman in the back row is smiling,” he said, his voice exuding gentleness. “And every one of them is beautiful.”
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That there were 249 people present is not a fact gleaned by looking up the capacity of the Westside Theatre. I hesitate to reveal how I know that number, except to say that I was number 83 of those 249. A forlorn New York Times theater critic was number 110. “And a very sad 110 you are,” Lane quipped.
But Lane’s hand was raised when he said that, and that was significant. Over the course of the 75-minute show, his raised right hand was a signal to the audience that the words he was speaking were his own. Soleimanpour encourages ad-libbing, so long as the audience knows how to differentiate the actor’s words from his own in the script. A few of the other bon mots that came forth when Lane’s hand was up included:
- “Audience participation falls somewhere between incest and folk dancing.”
- “I’m Bob Barker!”
- “Is there a lawyer in the house?”
- “Does anybody have a cigarette?”
- “Let’s go to the tote board, shall we?”
- “This is the world’s longest Craigslist ad.”
- “We’re going for this gag?” (After being betrothed to take a selfie with audience members.)
- “After tonight, 18.” (In response to a part of the text that describes 17 methods for committing suicide.)
With his amusing grouchiness and sad-clown wit, Lane drained whatever sense of pretentiousness or experimentation that might otherwise bloat the script. “I don’t care,” he said at one point to an audience member. “Whatever gets us to the next f—ing page.” And once it was all over, after he’d laid down on a couch and all 249 of us were shuffling together towards the exits, the whole building felt like it was living and breathing. No doubt that the glass of water which Lane drank did not have the toxic colorless powder from that small vial mixed into it, right? An actor drinking poison could never happen in the theater, could it?
Nathan Lane has passed on. Allegorically speaking. Per the rules of Soleimanpour’s game, he will never perform White Rabbit Red Rabbit again. But for all the foreseeable Mondays (historically a dark night on the New York stage) others will step into the role, including Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Wayne Brady and Cynthia Nixon. And each of them, on a beautiful molecular level, will never be the same again. Nor 249 other people, either. A
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