A goofy turbaned Arab bellows from the marketplace in an accent thick as hashish smoke, to draw audiences in to this deceptively complex look at intercultural relations through the prism of the 1001 Arabian Nights.
Hagglers like these, along with sultans, genies, harems and saber-clutching, camel-riding thieves from the tales of Scheherazade, provided many non-Arab Americans with their first images of Middle-easterners in childhood. These characters were ubiquitous in cartoons and movies as well as storybooks, making it all the more surreal when news reports made it appear as if some version of these characters seemed to hate us and want to kill us.
Playwright Jason Grote plays with this strange relationship in “1001.” He plays too with the story’s famous tiered structure, wherein a narrator tells a story featuring a character who tells someone else a story about another storyteller, and so on. It’s a framing technique worthy of the Moderns, a couple of whom pop up themselves, unexpectedly.
Somewhere in Arabian nights full of ill-fated and forbidden romances, unfolds the tale of Alan, a stock neurotic New York Jewish liberal, and Dahna, a self-possessed Arab-American fellow-liberal arts student. Inspired by some mixture of passion and politics, they pair pursues a precarious romance forged at a public debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, during dangerous times for New Yorkers.
Alan is played by Nael Nacer, last seen at Company One in his brilliant performance as a brooding would-be-novelist, vagabond in Annie Baker’s unique Shirley, Vermont play, “The Aliens.” Nacer is brilliant again here, doubling as the sensitive urban introvert, and Shahriyar, a lascivious and oppressive sheik who threatens the life of a wily young bride. Not long ago, Nacer played Chico Marx in the Lyric Stage production of “Animal Crackers.” He seems to have borrowed a dash of Groucho for the role of this swaggering despot. The extremely canny actress Lauren Eicher plays Nacer’s counterpoint and matches him in talent. She is equally charming as Scheherazade, the dramatic storytelling bride, and Dahna, the modern women torn between cultures.
“1001” is at first bewildering, then funny, then moving, then bewildering again for entirely different reasons. All told, a trip worth taking.
Directed for Company One by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, “1001” plays at the BCA Plaza Theatre through August 13.