Jay Paul Deratany’s Haram! Iran! follows the trial of two Iranian teenage boys accused of homosexual relations.
Ayaz (Roberto Tolentino) is a studious fifteen year-old Arab Iranian who has been asked by his school principal to tutor academic slacker Mahmoud (Rahul Rai). Mahmoud’s soccer buddy, Fareed (Kal Mansoor), is jealous of the growing friendship between Ayaz and Mahmoud. Ayaz’s effeminate mannerisms and bookish nature make him a ripe target for Fareed’s bullying. The play, based on a true story, at first employs a cinematic flashback structure, juxtaposing scenes of Ayaz’s mother recounting the boys’ friendship to her lawyer Shirin with scenes that follow the development of Ayaz’s and Mahmoud’s relationship. Once we are up to speed with the necessary details, the rest of the work explores the trial and the boys’ experiences in prison.
The play’s most touching scenes revolve around the ebb and flow this friendship. Mahmoud admires Ayaz’ knowledge of life outside Iranian customs, and Ayaz is taken by the former’s charm. Together, they read Catch in the Rye, Rumi, and look at topless women in issues of National Geographic. Their interactions are fraught with sexual tension, at once palpable and repressed, ready to snap the air in the room in half. An tender but not sexual moment is witnessed by Fareed, who capitalizes on the opportunity for revenge by naming names. Soon, Mahmoud and Ayaz’s unexpressed desires land them in court facing capital punishment.
Tolentino crafts Ayaz’s character with unnerving honesty, his uncertain body movements and sunken chest alluding to a lack of appreciation of self. Rai successfully captures both Mahmoud’s frat boy braggadocio and his latent capacity for compassion. Together, the create a chemistry that brings the text to life.
Veteran actor Russell Jordan plays the judge (Mullah), who has to navigates his progressive sensibilities around his duty to Sharia law. Jordan brings a visceral intensity to such an interior conflict, and one could easily imagine a play solely about his character. Likewise, Sahar Bibiyan plays defense attorney Shirin as a fiercely principled woman undermined by the institutions she serves.
Deratany and director Rick Leidenfrost-Wilson also wisely present Fareed’s own vulnerabilities. Pressured to achieve an overdetermined masculinity by his abusive father, Fareed becomes an antagonist not because of necessities of plot but because of the cultural and systemic forces that propagate his character. His father, Sattar, is unfortunately not afforded the same opportunity. As the prosecuting attorney in the trial, Sattar is played in broad strokes by Colin Mulligan, often evoking a moustache-twirling villain. The text itself points to Sattar’s repressed sexuality and devotional nationalism, providing fertile ground for complex character work that remained unexplored on stage. That said, Mulligan does play a villain-with-a-capital V with relish, and I am curious what he can do with that persona in the right context.
The scenic design makes the most of its bare minimalism: grey boxes serve as multiple types of props and the overall palette of slate greys and muted shades of blue and green facilitate the emotional life of the text while still suggesting a strong sense of place.It is all the more touching that Ayaz and Mahmoud find love in such somber spaces.
Despite eschewing subtlety in favor of affect (particularly in its dialogue), Haram Iran presents multiple conflicts with intricate complexity. Homophobia, prejudice against Arab-Iranians, and an intransigent judiciary are explored with a poignant understanding that prevents Western audiences from implicitly claiming cultural superiority with their pathos. Stepping out of the TADA! Youth Theater, it took me moment to reorient myself, leave the world of Haram Iran behind and return to Manhattan. A must-watch for those eager to see global LGBTQ narratives told from the inside-out.