Review: In ‘One Thousand Nights and One Day,’ New Tales of Old Persia

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Sepideh Moafi, left, and Ben Steinfeld in “One Thousand Nights and One Day,” a new musical by Jason Grote and Marisa Michelson. Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times

On the first night of her plan to stay alive, Scheherazade entertains the sultan Shahriyar with a tale that she stops telling before it’s done. He is her new husband, and she has already found his scimitar, encrusted with the blood of the many wives he’s slain. Unless she gives him a reason to keep her around, she’ll be next. She’s counting on her cliffhangers to save her.

“That’s how this story goes, doesn’t it?” she asks him, rhetorically, and suddenly she’s talking about the narrative they’re in. “The monster Shahriyar terrorizes every woman in Persia; brave Scheherazade seduces him with stories until his thirst for blood subsides.”

“You seem weirdly self-aware,” he says.

So are the liveliest moments of Jason Grote and Marisa Michelson‘s tangled new musical “One Thousand Nights and One Day,” a critical deconstruction of the classic Middle Eastern folk tales of “One Thousand and One Nights.” Interweaving a fantastical medieval Persia with contemporary New York, the show is at its best when it flat-out mocks American ignorance and the stubbornness of ethnic clichés.

“Long ago, in ancient Persia,” a friendly narrator (Graham Stevens) begins. A comic pause. “Which is present-day Iran,” he adds. Another pause, because — as “you are products of the American education system” — he’ll have to tell us where Iran is, too. This narrator is called the One-Eyed Arab, never mind that he has two eyes; he’s a stereotype come to life, and as such isn’t required to reflect reality.

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Credit Richard Termine

The American fear of the Middle Eastern other is at the core of this show, based on Mr. Grote’s play “1001” and directed by Erin Ortman for Prospect Theater Company at A.R.T./New York Theaters. But Mr. Grote’s book gets bogged down as it tries to layer a time-shifting plot about two modern-day New Yorkers — Dahna (Sepideh Moafi), from the West Bank, and Alan (Ben Steinfeld), who is Jewish — with the story of Shahriyar (Mr. Steinfeld), Scheherazade (Ms. Moafi) and the yarns she spins.

Ms. Michelson’s music winds through it, by turns spare or richly choral, influenced by Sondheim or the sounds of the Middle East. The actors’ voices are lovely, though an aural muddiness mars the ensemble numbers.

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