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Why Are Celebrities Lining Up to Star in a Play They've Never Read?

Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, and more star in White Rabbit Red Rabbit, the mysterious new off-Broadway show.

Whoopi Goldberg starred in the March 14 performance of Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit at the Westside Theatre.
(© 2016 Bruce Glikas)

Whoopi Goldberg cautiously took the stage of the Westside Theatre, armored only in an asymmetrical cardigan and Dutch clogs. She didn't know her lines. She hadn't attended a single rehearsal. Was this another tragic case of a spoiled celebrity slouching through a play? Anyone familiar with the EGOT-winning actress and comedian would immediately know this is certainly not the case. In fact, this lack of preparation is all part of the plan in White Rabbit Red Rabbit, the New York debut of Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour.

"I don't know if I would call it a monologue," says show coproducer Devlin Elliott, when pressed to categorize the highly unconventional solo performance. "It's more a play, or a theater social experiment. It's a communal experience between audience and performer," he explains, before pausing to second-guess even that vague characterization. "That makes it sound like improv...That's not it at all!" So what exactly is it?

White Rabbit Red Rabbit is definitely scripted, but the actor is not allowed to look at the words on the page until the moment he or she steps in front of an audience. At the top of the show, the actor is handed the script and a vial of some mysterious substance. The script contains a list of instructions for the actor and audience, who move through the show with an equal amount of foreknowledge. Additionally, the author speaks through the actor to give an explanation of who he is and how he came to write this unusual play.

Patrick Wilson led the March 21 performance of White Rabbit Red Rabbit.
(© Bruce Glikas)

Soleimanpour wrote White Rabbit Red Rabbit in 2010 after declining to participate in the two years of military service required of all Iranian men. As a result of his refusal, he was not allowed to travel outside Iran. Instead, he let his words journey for him: White Rabbit Red Rabbit has been performed all around the world and has been translated into 15 different languages. Because of the necessarily spartan nature of the play (no rehearsal, director, or designers), it has been particularly popular at theater festivals.

It was at one of those festivals, the Edinburgh Fringe, where Elliott and producing partner Tom Kirdahy discovered the show: "We were in a really cramped space in the middle of the aisle. It was packed and we were both a little grumpy," Kirdahy recalls. "But within minutes we were riveted. People lingered outside the venue after because everyone wanted to talk about it. It was so surprising and unpredictable."

It's not just the audience that is regularly caught off guard by White Rabbit Red Rabbit. "This is not what I expected," Goldberg said as the evening took increasingly strange twists. "I'm as surprised as you are." While she occasionally appeared befuddled, Goldberg maintained a light and humorous rapport with the crowd, a coolness that has undoubtedly been refined from years of hosting volatile personalities on TV's The View. Unfortunately, you don't get to throw to a commercial break in live theater.

One can easily imagine how the play could be radically different in the hands of another actor. Of course, the unique nature of the show means that you don't have to imagine: This is a one-shot affair. Once an actor has done it, the magic of spontaneity is gone and can never be recaptured. With that in mind, Elliott and Kirdahy have lined up a series of actors to lead the show, which performs every Monday night.

"We put together a wish list," explains Kirdahy about the casting, which now includes Cynthia Nixon, Brian Dennehy, and Alan Cumming. "We wanted audience members to have this special experience with beloved stars. These people have nothing to prove yet they're constantly challenging themselves as artists. They love the thrill of the high-wire act this performance demands."

Nathan Lane reveals the script for the opening night of White Rabbit Red Rabbit.
(© Bruce Glikas)

Tony Award winner Nathan Lane was the first out of the gate. "It helps to be married to him," says Elliott when asked how he got Lane to agree to take the opening night of this highly experimental production (the two were wed last November). "I knew on the airplane home from Scotland that we would have to be very cryptic about what we would say about the show to Nathan, because we wanted him to do it," he recalls. "He got it right away."

Naturally, Elliott and Kirdahy are evasive when asked about the script. "I plead the fifth," replies Kirdahy when asked to confirm or deny a theme of the play. They don't want to ruin the surprise for actors or audience.

So here's what we do know: White Rabbit Red Rabbit is an opportunity to discover the work of a form-pushing Iranian playwright while the actor, a beloved star of screen or stage, is doing the same. A portion of the proceeds benefit PEN International, an organization that supports writers living under hostile governments around the globe. Is that enough for you to take the plunge into the unknown? It was for Whoopi.