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Crossing Forbidden Boundaries 

Gay love in Israel and Iran

Thursday, Mar 18 2010
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A playwright-actor named Saleem stars in his own drama about a shy, bookish Palestinian grad student at UCLA studying ethnomusicology. (Greenway Court Theater hosts this latest rendition of the play, which has been in development for a number of years.) With the help of a housing coordinator, Liza (Christine Joëlle, with an extreme perkiness that seems an attempt to compensate for her character's gratuitousness), the Palestinian, named Nabeel, lands on-campus housing with an Israeli hunk named Yaron (Korken Alexander). On seeing the menorah perched conspicuously on the mantle of the apartment (set by Victoria Profitt), Nabeel instantly seeks options for alternative housing.

As potential gay lovers, they're an unlikely pair. Nabeel has a soft-spoken charm and leans philosophically toward conflict-avoidance and reconciliation. Alexander's Yaron appears decades younger than Nabeel, with a swagger that would seem, on the surface, to have a combustible effect on any wilting lily. But when bickering over who gets to use the bathroom, as the pair does, that wilting lily reveals a defiant streak, before rightly complaining about the childishness of the squabble.

Each of these tensions is a telling, tiny allegory for global conflicts far beyond the room, and across the sea. In Yaron's absence, Nabeel places his copy of the Koran directly next to the menorah. On the couch, he drapes his Palestinian scarf over precisely half of it. Equal and separate. These tiny revelatory gestures show the play at its best, when it has the confidence to speak of a conspicuously political friction through microcosmic, domestic incidents, brought to the fore upon Yaron's return.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAMONT - Sexual politics, Middle-Eastern style: Salam Shalom
  • PHOTO BY MICHAEL LAMONT
  • Sexual politics, Middle-Eastern style: Salam Shalom

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Their sexual attraction has the prewired romanticism of the Montagues and the Capulets — especially with a comparatively militant Palestinian organizer (Jay Ali) urging Nabeel to take hard-line positions that are an affront to his more reconciliatory impulses. Similarly, Yaron has a brother, David (Rafael Feldman), in the Israeli military, whose positions resemble those found in pamphlets published by the Jewish Defense League. And here are two men bonded by an inexplicable but palpable romantic attraction, being tugged at by the political swirl between the nations they come from.

If lack of trust is the downfall of any partnership — domestic or political — playwright Saleem's lack of trust in his own allegorical premise is the downfall of his drama.

First comes the impulse to talk it to death with platitudes. Offending the domestic and realistic parameters of the new roommate scenario, David gives an audience-address monologue that serves no purpose other than to stake out his political position — and from Tel Aviv, no less.

Shortly after, Nabeel gives a speech to a Palestinian student organization at UCLA in which he urges the opposing parties to "sleep with the enemy" — a notion that neither side finds heartening.

By Act 2, which sends us to Jerusalem and has Nabeel being arrested for crossing a border illegally, Liza floats in, as though from the stars, an angelic presence with coifed blond hair and a long, red dress with lipstick to match. She's there to tell us that a year has passed:

"Love. Love conquers, unites, divides, heals, burns ... and love kills. The things we do for love. Sometimes I wonder what will become of their relationship, not their love. A year has passed and They're back Home now. They're back to reality. I miss them. ... Well, their love is here to stay, but the story goes on."

You can find at least three song titles in that brief passage. Somebody could have stuck a framed picture on a wall that said "One year later," and then some construction worker, or even Liza, could have crossed the stage to remove it. That would have been more efficient, and wittier.

Ty Donaldson's tender direction leaves us in the dark a smidgen too long for too many scene changes, which only underscores the problems with the play. The drama lies in what happens in that apartment and in the unspoken sexual tension between the two men, in the details of who knows how to make what kind of hummus, and where it comes from. That's all there, and in those scenes around sharing a bathroom and the preparation of food lies this play's beauty, in the unanswerable paradoxes that lie at the heart of almost all political struggles. Talking it all out, as this play also tries to do, is just a clunky and literal exercise in pedantry.

Nice performances by Avner Garbi as Nabeel's father, and by Eileen Barnett asYaron's mother, the former living in Jerusalem, the latter in Tel Aviv. The playwright should have bought them both tickets to L.A., so they could visit their sons. Such imaginary tickets are not too expensive, and they might have saved this drama.

Jay Paul Deratany's speculative docudrama at the Celebration Theatre, Haram Iran, is based on newspaper photos of two teenage boys in Iran with nooses around their necks, being hanged for rape and sodomy. In Deratany's retelling, the boys (Tamer Aziz and Narenda "Andy" Gala — both excellent) are guilty of nothing more than a schoolboy crush. The rest comes from the machinations of a jealous school friend (Michael Tuazin) and an insufferably zealous legal system, epitomized by the Mullah of Mashhad (Maz Siam, possessing an absolutely terrifying despotic authenticity). The trial is conducted in a kangaroo court, just as the story unfolds through a kangaroo plot. Imagine The Crucible without any political nuance.

The difference is that Arthur Miller invited us to question our own internal tyrannies by setting the play in New England, and equating 17th-century witch hunts with those of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Deratany, however, sets his brutal drama in a foreign land, which invites us to do little but quake in horror over the atrocities of the "other," and feel smug self-satisfaction with our comparative liberties at home.

It might have been more interesting had the boys actually had sex — then we'd be looking at an issue beyond a transparent miscarriage of justice, which is really what this play is about. That, and how Iranian homophobia comes intertwined with religious zealotry. Perhaps the idea is to show just that, on the home front, but I couldn't find this play's emotional histrionics aiming to say much of anything about homophobia on our own soil.

This is a very adept and compelling production, with marvelous performances. (Anoush Ne Vart, playing one of the boys' educated mothers, is also fine.) It's directed by Michael Matthews on Kurt Boetcher's set of rolling chain-link panels with a kind of CSI sleekness. That may have been due to Cricket S. Myers' sound design of percussive ejaculations that amp up the melodrama.

SALAM SHALOM | By SALEEM | Presented by GREENWAY COURT THEATER, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. | Through April 16, SalamShalomThePlay.com. (323) 655-7679.

HARAM IRAN | By JAY PAUL DERATANY | Presented by CELEBRATION THEATRE, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Through April 4. (323) 957-1884.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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