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The rising water “sounds like a song,” the man says, and The Arabian Night makes a peculiar kind of music itself, a fugue for five voices who sing a polyphonic snarl of a story without ever abandoning the isolation of their individual melodies. It’s a pocket opera, confined to one night and one building but encompassing worlds, a chamber piece concerned with the shape of its lines and with the question of which one gets foregrounded at any given moment. And the excitement in this intricate quintet is designed to come in no small measure from the staccato interplay, the speed and the precision of the players’ cues and cutoffs.
It’s a play, not a musical—a slick 60-minute thriller with a chip on its urbane shoulder and a whiff of the supernatural in its nostrils—but the metaphor seems somehow inescapable once Roland Schimmelpfennig’s characters launch into their idiosyncratic riffs. Melanie Dreyer’s lyrical translation renders the German original into an English that has, if not quite a signature rhythm for each character, then certainly a signature tone: a jangling impatience for Nelina Giridhar’s Fatima, a dreamy, enervated quality for Jessica Hansen’s Franzisca, a damped-down, lonely wonder for Edwin Xavier’s Lomeier, and so on.
It’s the hottest night of the year, and the passacaglia begins with a woman wrangling shopping bags into her seventh-floor apartment. Inside, her scantily clad roommate lies sleeping, sweltering in the summer heat; outside, the super wanders the halls looking for the pipe break that’s left higher floors dry and the noise of water rushing through the walls. Fatima is the shopper, Franzisca the sleep-drugged roommate, Lomeier the dutiful maintenance man, and if initially there seems a sort of distanced intimacy to their citified workaday routines, they’ll turn out to be thoroughly entangled—and in more than one dimension, too.
First, though, come a theme (Matt Dunphy as Fatima’s boyfriend, Kalil) and a variation (Jason McCool as Peter, a neighbor dumbstruck by the sight of Franzisca through her open bathroom window), and as all five converge on Apartment 7-32, it becomes clear that Schimmelpfennig has more than simple coincidence and random connection in mind. There’s something about that immense ring of keys Fatima always carries, for one thing, and a reason Franzisca falls asleep with the sunset and never, ever wakes in the night.
An elevator breaks down with one person trapped inside it, while another finds herself locked outside the building. A cognac bottle becomes more than the insignificant prop it seems at first, as three kisses send the three men on journeys the jinni might have engineered in the tales that give Schimmelpfennig’s imaginatively rangy story its title. Before it’s done they’ll have traveled leagues, to Istanbul and to a Bedouin camp and to a past that may be the future, though whether they’re traveling in reality or just in some strange shared dream is open to question—at least initially.
The overlapping, intercutting monologues make for a prismatic sort of storytelling: The narrative comes together like a puzzle assembled from the corners inward, as a speaker with one perspective drops a tidbit of information that makes a sudden sense of an earlier fragment, and as the night grows increasingly bizarre, the characters voice their bewilderment and their raptures and eventually their uncomprehending terror in a complicated chorus that peaks with a crash and a slash and another kiss—and then darkness, and the song is done.
There’s not a great deal on The Arabian Night’s mind, it must be said, though a case might be made for a certain jaundiced weariness in its depiction of anonymous apartment-house living. And given the immigration debates a-raging here and across Europe, there might be a question or two to be asked about what a contemporary German playwright might be up to when he pits a pair of Arab characters against a Teutonic twosome and traps a Hungarian in between. Mostly, though, Schimmelpfennig seems to be interested in making an art of his craft—in playing enough tricks with structure and with rhythm and with pace to start hearts pounding and heads racing.
Which means that the stutters and lurches and pauses that popped up now and again on opening night—a sound cue missed, a line stepped on, an exchange with a breath too much air in it—worked against what ought to be a juggernaut of an experience. But Jenny McConnell Frederick’s intelligent staging boasts a snazzy multitiered design (courtesy of Tim Getman), an agreeable cast (Xavier’s Mittyish Lomeier is a particular pleasure), and a palpable investment in the notion that the otherworldly and the quotidian might well be nearer neighbors than we think. Once those rhythms tighten up a little, it should play like thunder and blazes.
No sensible critic would ever imagine that any musical, however underwhelming, should inspire a longing for the relative sophistication and spark of Thoroughly Modern Millie, that amphetamine-powered airhead of a show, but the calendar is long, and the moment has arrived. Aside from Maureen McGovern (who gets a pair of bland if expertly sung radio ballads as Marmee) and a pair of amusing gents (Stephen Patterson and Andrew Varela, playing love interests for pretentious Amy and boisterous Jo), the crashing banality that is the musical Little Women has precious little to recommend it.
Certainly there’s nothing to sing about in the interchangeable tunes, by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein. Emphatically, there’s nothing to talk about in Allan Knee’s book, which criminally shorthands (and shortchanges) the evergreen Louisa May Alcott novel. What, the swarms of little girls in the audience must be thinking, makes this a classic? The March sisters are meant to be icons of American womanhood, but I’ve seen more sophisticated characterization in a Powerpuff Girls cartoon.
New York audiences responded with the derision this mess deserves: Little Women ran a bare 137 performances on Broadway, and that was with Sutton Foster (the terminally perky star of Millie and of this year’s Drowsy Chaperone) starring as inspirational, aspirational Jo. This touring version features Kate Fisher, who does her exhausting best to find a personality between the lines of Knee’s sketches—and who cannot possibly hope to succeed.
No doubt she, like the producers, nevertheless hopes that this touring version (currently tarnishing the reputation of the theater program at the nation’s cultural center) will travel for some time, separating mothers and tweens across the land from their cash. But perhaps there’s a god who attends to audience well-being; if so, dear sweet Little Women will shortly follow dear sweet Beth to the grave.CP