'The Tutor' - passion play's penetrating perspectives at NCTC

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday April 16, 2024
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Deborah Eliezer and Maya Nazzal in 'The Tutor' (photo: Lois Tema)
Deborah Eliezer and Maya Nazzal in 'The Tutor' (photo: Lois Tema)

"The Tutor" is torrid.

Now being staged in a provocative, fiercely entertaining world premiere production commissioned by New Conservatory Theater Center and mounted in collaboration with Golden Thread Productions, Torange Yeghiazarian's hardly mellow drama plays with a love triangle as sharp and spiky as the dagger-like points on a backgammon board.

Set designer Matt Owen's audience-surrounded central stage design is decorated to evoke that pastime, which has origins in ancient Persia. And Yeghiazarian's erotic troika of contemporary Iranian and Iranian-American characters play the game, even as they engage in more dangerous competitions.

Longtime friends Kayvon (Lawrence Radecker) and Azar (Déborah Eliezer), are in their early fifties; he's a successful tech executive, she's a Berkeley math professor who has struggled with workplace gender politics but recently earned tenure. They seem to have met as immigrant undergraduates in the 1980s, having left Iran in the early years of its becoming an Islamic republic.

The third character, Baran (Maya Nazzal), is a 25-year-old Gen Z firebrand. She's a proud lesbian whose activism in Tehran had placed her, and her family, in danger. She's also newly wedded to the well-intentioned, ill-informed Kayvon, thanks to a deal brokered by their old-school mothers.

Maya Nazzal, Deborah Eliezer and Lawrence Radecker in 'The Tutor.' (photo: Lois Tema)  

Criss-crossed passions
The couple's motives for betrothal are distinctly different.

Baran is set on a merry, merciless path to freedom and a green card. In a scene set during a memorial for her mother-in-law, we see her crawling under a kitchen table to perform oral sex on Azar, with whom she's begun a secret affair. As Kayvon attends to guests in the next room, his young wife and best friend are stretching their clingy black mourning dresses in ecstasy.

Kayvon's own willingness to enter an arranged marriage may, as he insists, stem from a desire to appease his sickly matriarch. But it's also because he's floundered at romance. He falls back on what he imagines will be the once-upon-a-time ease of antiquated tradition rather than continue to struggle with the modern dating game.

As in backgammon, Kayvon moves backwards seeking home.

This devilish interweaving of male fragility and cultural heritage is just one of many stratagems Yeghiazarian (who was Golden Thread's founding Artistic Director) employs in engaging the audience. She encourages the shifting of our allegiances among the characters as their own loyalties slalom in a switchback course. The betrayals and reversals are multifold and emotionally perilous.

All three cast members turn in terrific performances, allowing us to see them subtly blinking in bafflement, openly throbbing with pheremonal energy, and being whiplashed by the ugliness of belated self-perception.

Nazzal, a relative newcomer to Bay Area stages, brings a headlong rawness to her role, never letting us reduce Baran to an inconsiderate arriviste.

Lawrence Radecker, Deborah Eliezer and Maya Nazzal in 'The Tutor' (photo: Lois Tema)  

Coherent complexity
So passionate and tricksy are the head games these characters play with each other — both wittingly and obliviously — that "The Tutor" (the title refers to Kayvon's presumptuous tasking of Azar to acclimate Baran to American life) would be fully absorbing without a further dimension of complexity that Yeghiazarian layers onto her script.

In what feels like an excess of cleverness (and perhaps a hat tip to Harold Pinter), the play's scenes are presented non-chronologically. To the credit of both Yeghiazarian and director Sahar Assaf (also Golden Thread's Executive Artistic Director), whose work here is brisk but intricate, this device never makes the story difficult to follow. It also allows some of the play's betrayals to hit with gut-punch surprise.

But it's hard to understand why this structure has been chosen. The characters and their dilemmas are already rich; the plot already sensational. Why take an elegant backgammon board and morph it into something Rubik's cubic?

That said, the narrative gilding doesn't really damage the insightful craftsmanship beneath it. "The Tutor" delivers a masterclass in palpable psychological storytelling.

'The Tutor,' through May 12. $25-$65. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. (415) 861-8972 www.nctcsf.org

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