A correction was made to this review on June 21, 2006.
The characters in the dreamy fable of memory and loneliness, “Arabian Night,” are the types for whom metaphor happens while life is passing by. Almost on a dime they find themselves transported from a cramped city apartment to a sprawling Arabian desert, falling into a bout of (symbolic) narcolepsy, trapped inside a bottle of brandy. But where the flourishes could have strayed into self-consciousness, this Americanized staging of a strongly European work avoids the easy traps, deploying just the right amount of whimsy at just the right times.
In a high-rise urban building complex live a recognizable bunch — the embittered super, a voyeuristic neighbor, a pair of female roommates harboring secrets. Their close quarters are anything but intimate, however; in a theme straight out of a Paul Thomas Anderson film, physical and circumstantial intimacy only highlight emotional distance.
The characters don’t conduct dialogue so much as narrate it — as well as the action around them: “He doesn’t laugh, he looks distant, preoccupied,” says one. It’s a cloying tic that nonetheless serves the play’s cynical worldview: No matter how our relationships shift and tighten, certain gaps never seem to close.
Not that this stops anyone from trying. Fatima has been having an affair with Kalil (Piter Marek) after her roommate Franziska (Jicky Schnee) falls into a narcoleptic sleep every night that wipes her memory clean. The super, Hans (Stelio Savante), pines for a lost wife. The voyeur, Peter, played with convincing lonely-guy desperation by Brandon Miller, suggests he’s never recovered from his own heartbreak — and ends up trapped inside a brandy bottle (a metaphor that’s not as heavy-handed as it sounds).
German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig (the play opened at the Staatstheater in Stuttgart) toys with the characters as if they occupied his own private glass menagerie. He springs them into coincidences that ensure they all come into contact with one other, or at least spur memories of such contact in an otherworldly realm of Arabian mystery.
Franziska, we learn, was kidnapped from a Turkish bazaar as a child and spent years in a sultan’s harem. It’s an event that may or may not connect to the super’s recalled honeymoon to Istanbul with his former wife (and may or may not have happened at all). This ambiguity is less a cop-out than the play’s ambitious suggestion of memory as an end instead of a process. A flashback in this show isn’t just a recalled event — it’s a meditation on what it means to remember.
Trip Cullman’s direction is at once manic and languorous. The actors’ scurry about the large, multitiered stage (which allows for some sophisticated blocking) compensating for the torpid melancholy within.
Yet it’s Schnee, the actor who moves the least, who is the production’s greatest revelation. A waifish blond bombshell, she plays her part to such fey perfection that she manages to be both an ethereal ideal for everyone else and the strongest character onstage.
For all its philosophical yearnings, “Arabian Night” is hardly above a silly coincidence or misunderstanding. Fatima misreads a Kalil encounter with Franziska in an especially sitcom-ish contrivance. The Arabian connection also can be strenuous. But Schimmelpfennig throws in enough comic absurdities to make up for it. It’s a dark European tale of loves lost and children stolen, leavened by goofiness.
If the show flirts with incoherence, it doesn’t seem to matter. In a world where people would rather dream than awake to the nightmare of their reality, questions of truth magically fall away.