As Richard Kim trenchantly reports in the Aug. 7, 2005, issue of the Nation, the facts concerning the Tehran execution of Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari remain as impenetrable as the veils of Islamic law enshrouding them. With considerable license available to any dramatist charting their melancholy road to the gallows, it’s disheartening to find Jay Paul Deratany’s “Haram Iran” so often opting for mushy sentiment and hysterical demagoguery. Michael Matthews’ conscientious staging at the Celebration Theater can’t bring the piece, a Chicago import, to sustained life.
No one knows whether, as charged, the boys were gay, sexually active or complicit in an alleged gang rape of another classmate. Still, it’s hardly the freshest or most provocative choice to portray them, as Deratany does, as utter innocents. Ayaz (Tamer Aziz) is the delicate soccer-phobe guiding the robust, popular Mahmoud (Narendra “Andy” Gala) into a taste for book learning, dreams of the West and other haram (forbidden) pleasures.
Not only is this setup a direct knockoff of Jonathan Harvey’s “Beautiful Thing” — complete with the athletic boy’s abusive father, and a bruised salve treatment leading to a fateful intimacy — but the play’s effectiveness as agitprop against same-sex persecution is neutered if nothing more than a little tentative fumbling has gone on, misinterpreted by a jealous peer (Michael Tauzin) who’s assigned a Psych 101 motivation for his treachery.
The remaining source of anger, the boys’ railroading by bigoted Islamic fundamentalism, is equally undone by the playwright’s choices. One cannot explore how a judge’s religious fervor can induce him to ruthlessly bypass logic when the Imam (Maz Siam) is crudely written along the lines of a redneck Southern sheriff. His lunatic Draconian leaps — the rape charge is invented out of whole cloth — smack more of Lewis Carroll than credible contemporary behavior.
Courtroom scenes merely kill time, since the big buildup of the boys’ lawyer (Ayman Samman) comes to nothing. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” our hopes for poor Tom Robinson are raised as Atticus skewers prosecution witnesses. But our guy can’t score a single debating point here, constantly steamrolled by the preposterous Judge Roy Bean stand-in pounding the bench with melodrama’s iron fist.
Moreover, since the cleric is portrayed as running roughshod over facts without proof, why does Deratany have a guard (Sila Agavale) sodomize one of the accused to trump up evidence of the crime? Such decisions start to seem as exploitative as the movie “Midnight Express,” wherein the artist employs his targets’ own extreme tactics so as to jack up audience sympathy.
As logic jumps the tracks, the play keeps sidestepping the situation’s richer implications. The playbill credits Iran as “transsexual capital of the world,” actively encouraging sex changes to transform so-called inverts into solid citizens. It’s a dumbfounding report “Haram Iran” could readily have dramatized, but these dewily romantic heroes chewing over Holden Caulfield’s “Catcher in the Rye” adventures are never offered so strange and morally complex a recourse.
Production values are solid, Cricket S. Myers’ sound design combining with the actors’ accents to create a believably exotic atmosphere. Matthews uses Kurt Boetcher’s scaffolding pieces in ingeniously theatrical ways — the boys swing from them in happier times — and guides the cast effectively within their roles’ outlandish conception. Gala is particularly strong playing Mahmoud’s ambivalence between his faith and his friend.
In act one, Anoush NeVart mugs and begs for laughs shamelessly as Ayaz’s Auntie Mame-ish mother, who introduces him to show tunes and haram visions of freedom. But she’s harrowingly fine and unmannered in the face of her boy’s peril, defying his captors to traduce a mother’s love.