'Wish You Were Here' Review: The Saga of Female Friendship

The five Iranian women of wish you were Here ”, which opened Tuesday night at Playwrights Horizons, joke about sex and their bodies. Th...

The five Iranian women ofwish you were Here”, which opened Tuesday night at Playwrights Horizons, joke about sex and their bodies. They file their fingernails and lick their cheeks with disarming comfort. And they show off their psychic connections by playing “what am I thinking?” tricks.

Yet these friends can also be vicious, taunting each other with the aimed blows of a loved one who knows where to stick the knife.

Playwright Sanaz Toossi stumbles upon this group in 10 scenes – one for almost every year from 1978 to 1991, a period encompassing the Islamic Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War and the country’s steps towards economic stability. Somewhat awkwardly pushing this upheaval into the background, Toossi focuses instead on women and how their relationships with each other – and with themselves – change with marriages, deaths and sudden departures. Their friendship is its own saga of constantly fluctuating degrees of intimacy and friction.

We meet the women in their mid-20s, all getting ready for a wedding in a living room in Karaj, Iran: Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja) is the bride, dressed in a dune of lace and white tulle like snow, “big in a way it seems humiliating”, according to the neurotic Shideh (Artemis Pebdani). Rana (Nazanin Nour), an exuberant firecracker still dressed in her red silk pajamas, promises never to marry or have children. The same goes for the rude and brash Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), who is aiming for an engineering degree. Zari (Nikki Massoud), casually lying on a very 70s flowered sofa, gives the impression of a naive youth. These women mock and push each other, their insecurities and fears often colliding like bumper cars at a carnival.

Although the pure Salme, who faithfully prays for what she believes to be the best for her friends – a husband and children for Nazanin, admission to an American medical school for Shideh – seems to be our main protagonist at first, it is quickly shown that this is not the case. Nazanin becomes the anchor of every scene, even as the other women enter and leave, even though structurally the play had not previously indicated that this would be the case.

Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s direction attempts to bring out the color of these women’s personalities but comes up against the limitations of the script which, squeezing 13-year-olds into a 100-minute race, struggles to focus its lens and communicate the subtle dynamic between friends. The characters lack context, beyond the very occasional mention of a fiancé or a child, and so their actions – which they always do outside of the isolation of this single living room – lack stakes. The sequence of weddings and the not-so-distant war sirens come across as transparent markers of progress, but they never credibly penetrate the tiny bubble of time and space where these characters live.

Arnulfo Maldonado opts for a kitschy set of a living room with patterned rugs, pink and beige walls and ornate Iranian furniture, though the scene remains oddly static even as the production moves to different living rooms through 13 years of different fashions, as beautifully captured in Sarah Laux’s Costume Design, from the bean bag wedding dress and flirty 70s bridesmaid dresses to a long denim skirt in the 80s. lighting by Reza Behjat elegantly captures the sunrises and sunsets of the passing years.

Still, each of the actresses gives an expert performance. Pebdani, who played one of my favorite recurring characters on the comedy series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” is just as funny here as Shideh, despite having few scenes and little to work with. Nour and Radja bring appropriate exuberance and sweetness to their characters, respectively, and in Zari, Massoud presents an arc from candor to self-awareness and maturity.

Neshat, who provided deeply expansive performances in another recent Playwrights production, “Sell ​​Kabul“, and as an intricately drawn “English” Toefl teacher, continues his series of rich and deep character portrayals. With each of his characters, Nazarin included, Neshat gradually sheds his armors of self-control and her strength, her reserve and her determination, to reveal how fragile, scared and insecure she is. In other words, Neshat transforms empathy into a dramatic act that we witness, in real time , on the scene.

With his latest produced work, the Atlantic and Roundabout Theater Companies’ scintillating production of “EnglishFrom February, Toossi has worked wonders with his tongue; she offered an examination of national identity, otherness, and the construction of a private and public self, all within the context of subtle discussions of phonetics, pronunciation, and syntax in an English class in Iran. There are glimmers of that work here too, as in the exquisite poetry of the final scene. (“She’ll never know how fast this earth can turn under you,” swears one character, now an American expat, in a monologue about her future daughter. “How one day you can have a house, and the next, like you you’re hurtling through the air, you’ll have to defeat the house.”)

Even though “Wish You Were Here” revolves around themes of the female body and national politics, aiming to land somewhere with a statement, it constantly backs off. In a note from the playwright, Toossi asks: “Does not each play exist in a political whole? Should a play be political if the events of the play are affected by the politics of the play’s setting? Isn’t every play political? I can’t decide. Unfortunately, despite the successes of the production, the indecision of the playwright is felt.

It’s exciting to see a depiction of the complexity of female friendships, including the intricacies and petty rivalries. It’s something I’ve been considering a lot lately in conversations with my girlfriends – how we’ve shaped and been shaped by each other, how we’ve grown or outgrown our assigned roles in the life of the other. There’s so much to enjoy and even more to explore here, in the confidences of rowdy, supportive and mean women; I just wish we had witnessed it on stage.

wish you were Here
Through May 29 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Manhattan; playwrightshorizons.org. Duration: 1h40.

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'Wish You Were Here' Review: The Saga of Female Friendship
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