Jason Grote’s “1001” makes an entertaining, often witty case for the significance of the Arabian Nights tales — and Arabia itself — in the West’s collective consciousness. Its small ensemble impersonates a plethora of characters linked across time and space, and between fact and fiction, by their common humanity. This allusive, multicultural couscous of a play affords much pleasure in its West Coast premiere at the Theater @ Boston Court, though neither text nor production prove quite as rich or fulfilling as they promise to be.
Through tale weaver Scheherezade (Monica Jolly), Grote forthrightly asserts, “There is only one story… comprised of every word that has ever been or ever will be uttered.” As such, he readily finds room for visits by the likes of Osama bin Laden, mimicking Vincent Price’s “Thriller” narration before a chorus line of hip-hopping ghouls, and Jorge Luis Borges, whose playfully fantastical fictions set the standard for “1001’s” brand of scrambled narrative.
Tales spun for King Shahriyar (John Sloan) intriguingly begin to form a Chinese-box puzzle, each announced as fitting into the one before. At the same time — and rarely have those words been as applicable to a parallel plot — Jolly portrays Dahna, a Palestinian grad student in love with Jewish student Alan (Sloan again) but drawn into an Internet flirtation with a wealthy London-based Arab (the dashing Sam Younis).
The Arabian nights and New York daze gradually intersect in a double helix of incidents and imagery, not always lucid but generally engaging. (An endless subway tunnel monologue goes nowhere, but as one character cheerfully confesses, “I don’t understand much. I just go with it.”) Finally, a great cataclysm — not 9/11, but of course that date’s always in mind — takes us back to the mysterious opening image of a comatose patient and a reminder that one had better be careful what one wishes for, especially where genies are concerned.
Any meta-theatrical work like “1001” is disadvantaged in using a pickup cast of thesps, however capable, rather than a permanent ensemble. The game Boston Court team lacks the sinuous actor byplay produced after months of rehearsal time, their shape-shifting too often forced and plagued by mushy diction.
Sloan, for instance, is too earthbound in handling Shahriyar’s verbal tic meant to suggest partial entrapment in a time warp (“The shattering love of a Pringle, no, a King”; “I am genital gentile no! Gentle!”). The affectation becomes as wearisome as thesp’s Alan is touching. Cast is far more comfortable in modern dress generally, with only the estimable Jolly managing to inhabit both worlds with equal facility.
Production offers a couple of lovely coups involving a blue-fabric linking device and an amusing Arabian flute-and-percussion cover of Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” theme, which haunts a tale about remaking a woman in a dead lover’s image. Keep an eye on the seven oversized piles of volumes surrounding the space. (Lawrence of Arabia’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”? Or an allusion to the bestselling “1001 Books to Read Before You Die”? Either, both or neither would make sense here.)
But the environment — a backdrop of earth-toned fabric slaloming down to cover a large disc — works against play’s jagged structure. Scribe specifies “mazes, impossible architecture… Think an M.C. Escher drawing,” and while such matters are always director’s choice, Grote’s hint that a set “should induce mild inertia” is onto something that helmer-designer Michael Michetti’s elegantly symmetrical construction entirely misses.
Moreover, Scheherezade/Grote calls the Great Story of Life a trap from which none of us can escape, “for nothing exists outside of it. No story, no you.” If so, we’re always participants, none of us onlookers, and it feels wrong to leave offstage actors waiting in full view as a constant reminder of theatrical artifice.
Better, perhaps, to let us always imagine unseen thesps lurking behind and within drapes of fabric, ready to pop up (as Michetti often has them do anyway) in displays of behavioral magic for which Grote has provided so many opportunities.