Artemis Pebdani, Marjan Neshat, Nikki Massoud, Roxanna Hope Radja in Wish You Were Here. Photo: Joan Marcus
If you crossed the now long-defunct television talk show Girl Talk with Euripides’ Trojan Women, you probably wouldn’t quite get Sanaz Toossi’s Wish You Were Here. All the same, you might get something close to it. You might come up with a work during which five women friends chat about impending weddings and just about everything else women chat about, even as a war — the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war — is making noise in the not too far distance.
When the chatting begins, it’s 1978 in Karaj, Iran where Nazanin (Marjan Neshat), Zari (Nikki Massoud), Shideh (Artemis Pebdani) and Rana (Nazanin Noor) are making a fuss about the wedding dress that Salme (Roxanna Hope Radja) is having adjusted for the impending nuptials.
The wedding is the central topic of conversation, although the friends bring up a few others. Foremost among these is the female body. During this scene, one of them dives under Salme’s bouffant skirt (Sarah Laux designed the costumes) to sniff around for assurance that the bride is sufficiently fragrant for her wedding night.
You read that right. Toossi is putting on display what she apparently has observed women sometimes focus on when they’re being open with each other. She’s consistent throughout a play that covers the years 1979-91. She gets to matters (most often?) freely discussed when men aren’t present. Among other items mooted are waxing, finger and toe polish, menstrual cycles, yeast infections, body hair, and vaginas and, more frequently, a popular term for them.
It’s Toossi’s intention to lend an ear to women when secluded, but she decidedly has a deeper concern. On her mind is the fragility of friendship, when it flowers and wilts, sometimes flowering again, sometimes never returning, or barely returning.
As Toossi’s years move on — with perhaps too much of the forgettable daily gab recorded — the five friends disperse for one reason or another. The most important of the separations is between Nazanin and Rana, who’s not Muslim but Jewish and apparently leaves with her family when the Iran-Iraq conflict begins. The Nazanin-Rana alliance is special to both and, more than suggesting they’re just BFFs, carries the hint of a “special,” unacknowledged friendship.
Before the 1978 sequence ends, the two have sworn that neither would marry. Both do, but theirs is not the only bond that loosens. As the years pass, scenes follow where fewer of the friends convene, until only two meet — with Nazanin always present. Career intentions waver — Shideh attends medical school in the States, Nazanin never makes good on her goal of becoming an engineer, Rana reports working at a fast-food chain.
Eventually (spoiler alert) only one remains. That’s when the dime drops heavily on Toossi’s title, on friendships dissolving, often for reasons that aren’t explained by anything other than time passing. That doesn’t signal they aren’t missed, aren’t grieved. What’s been lost may not have the possibility of being regained but can still be endlessly missed.
As Wish You Were Here unfolds, an odd feature pops up. Evidently, Toossi, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado agreed on having one set — a comfortable living room with a garden visible when upstage curtains are pulled back. The implication is that the play takes place in the one room, though depending on props coming and going. the locale supposedly changes.
Turns out, as Toossi indicates in a stage direction, the room represents different homes. Okay, it makes sense that the friends might furnish their residences similarly and children’s toys wouldn’t proliferate in childless homes, but how are audiences who haven’t read the script to know as much? There’s no explanatory line in the program? It must be insignificant to Toossi, who writes in the script one setting is fine with her. Maybe a bit muddied for others.
Upchurch succeeds mightily with her cast. Neshat — who appeared only a few months back in Toossi’s impressive English at the Atlantic Theatre Company and not that long ago in the equally impressive Selling Kabul — further proves herself an actor able to grab hold of tough parts with both hands. As Rana, the tall Nour has command of humor and uncertainty. Pebdani, as the cynical, dissatisfied Shideh and, doubling as New Friend in a brief late appearance, takes the stage with swaggering confidence. Massoud and Radja strongly bring their characters’ real (premarital) concerns for blends of worry and laughs.
A final cautionary message to patrons of a certain age: By now it must be clear that this Wish You Were Here is not a revival of Broadway’s 1952 musical of the same title. So, chart-topping Eddie Fisher will not be heard singing Harold Rome’s title tune — even though Toossi might agree that the longing in the lyric could apply to her bittersweet piece.
Wish You Were Here opened May 3, 2022, at Playwrights Horizons and runs through May 29. Tickets and information: playwrightshorizons.org