Why Major Stars Are Risking It All to Perform a Play They Won’t Read Until Opening Night

Special Features   “This Is Not a Gimmick;” The Producers of White Rabbit Red Rabbit On The Play No One Knows Anything About
We try to uncover some of the mystery behind New York City’s most-talked about (and least-talked about) new show.
Bruce Glikas/VivacityPR

White Rabbit Red Rabbit is shrouded in mystery. The premise of the play: An actor is handed a previously unseen script on the evening of the performance. No rehearsals. No director. No set. Neither the audience, nor the performer, know what it is about. Everything unravels in real time.

The first actor to give this theatrical experiment a go in New York City was Tony winner Nathan Lane. The internationally acclaimed solo show written by Nassim Soleimanpour kicked off its New York premiere March 7 at the Westside Theatre, where it will play Monday nights, exclusively with a rotating star-studded cast that includes the likes of Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Cumming, Cynthia Nixon, Wayne Brady and more.

Nassim Soleimanpour
Nassim Soleimanpour

With performances now underway, what do we know for certain about White Rabbit Red Rabbit? Press notes state that Iranian playwright Soleimanpour—unable to leave his country—was inspired to write the piece from his experience of isolation, but reveal little else. Following Lane’s debut performance, theatregoers took to Twitter with their reactions, but were careful not to give away any spoilers. “White Rabbit Red Rabbit was wild,” said one audience member. Reviews were similarly ambiguous. A chat with producers Devlin Elliott and Tom Kirdahy helps us peel back the curtain, just a little.

“This is not a producer’s gimmick—this is a playwright’s conceit,” says Kirdahy, almost apologetically. “This is what the writer has intended. So we’re not being coy when we say we can’t tell you. It’s a requirement of our license.” Without offering specific details, Kirdahy and Elliott use words like “thought-provoking,” “entertaining,” and “funny” to describe White Rabbit Red Rabbit. It’s a play that can be performed by anybody, they say—men, women, people of all ages and all races.

“[It’s] a piece of theatre that also has something to say and has a social conscience about it,” explains Elliott. “[It is about the] humanity of people in general, it’s not politically left or right…it’s about who we are as people.” They also reveal that the script is peppered with hairpin turns and surprises, prompting “fear and exhilaration” on the part of the audience and performer.

Unlike most New Yorkers, the duo has actually seen the show. They saw it during its premiere run at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “We sat down knowing nothing about it, other than he was Iranian,” says Elliott. “An hour later we walked out of the theatre and both turned to each other and said, almost at the same time: ‘That was unbelievably satisfying.’” They also discovered that each of them had come away with something completely different from the show. “We loved that. It just really starts a conversation when you walk out of the theatre,” he says.

The same mystery that shrouds the play, surrounds Soleimanpour. Still in Iran, the playwright is unavailable for press—even the Producers hadn’t spoken to him at the time of this interview. “We’ve never met him,” they say, explaining that they communicate with him exclusively through his agent. “We’re LinkedIn and Facebook friends,” says Elliott. “But we can’t wait to meet him,” adds Kirdahy. “Even if it’s a Skype meeting, we’re looking forward to our first date with him.” They are currently working on getting him to New York during the run, but there is a lot of paperwork involved.

Tom Kirdahy
Tom Kirdahy Rick Wenner

With this much secrecy cloaking White Rabbit Red Rabbit, one wonders how Elliott and Kirdahy were able to get such a stellar line-up of actors involved. “We love fearless performers,” says Kirdahy. “We made a wish list for ourselves and contacted a lot of these people directly. We said, ‘Okay, just bear with us here, we know this sounds crazy, but we think we have something really special on our hands. We know that as a performer you like to take risks and you like to stretch yourself—So what do you think about doing something you’re not allowed to read?’”

Devlin Elliott
Devlin Elliott Rick Wenner

“And we said to everyone, ‘You know we have to look you in the eyes after this, so we feel confident that if you take the leap with us, you will be very glad you did,’” he continues. “And a few people said, ‘That’s a little beyond what I’m prepared to do.’ But most people that we contacted said, ‘That scares the hell out of me. I have to do that.’”

In a recent interview with Playbill, Brian Dennehy, who is scheduled to perform the show March 28, said he had no idea what to expect. “And I don’t really want to know,” said the actor. “I may make a complete fool of myself, but it won’t be the first time and probably won’t be the last…It sounds like a stunt, but what the hell? Nathan Lane’s involved.”

The producers say that once the original line-up of actors was made public, they were inundated with requests to join the production. “On a Friday we were not sure who we had, and by Monday…the list was pretty huge,” says Kirdahy.

“One of the things that thrills us is we’re giving people an opportunity to have an intimate experience with some of their most beloved performers,” he continues. “In this piece, there is a communication between audience and performer that people rarely get to experience…the actor or actress is seeing these words for the first time and there is a lot of opportunity for communication between audience and performer.”

Another hint! But once again, they are unable to elaborate. For anyone wanting more information on White Rabbit Red Rabbit—including the actors scheduled to perform—they’ll simply have to head to the Westside Theatre on a Monday evening to see for themselves, exactly what rabbit this Iranian playwright is hiding in his hat.

Tickets to White Rabbit Red Rabbit are on sale via Telecharge.com or by calling (212) 239-6200. The Westside Theatre is located at 407 W. 43rd St., Manhattan.

Olivia Clement is a news and features writer at Playbill.com, specializing in the wonderful and expansive world of Off-Broadway. Follow her on Twitter @oliviaclement_.

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