nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
October 24, 2007
An extreme shift in identity is ostensibly the central theme explored in Tom Coash's play Cry Havoc. But Coash never seems sure-footed about how to explore this theme. More often than not he tells us but does not show us, and by the end we are overwrought by the author's unrestrained verbosity that leaves little room for plausible characters to develop. Consequently I felt mostly unmoved by this play about a gay couple living in Cairo whose lives are upended after a run-in with Egypt's anti-gay policies. And I was certainly not moved by the kiss near the end of the play—their only kiss—that looked as artificial as two straight guys kissing on a bet. The kiss was supposed to be a bittersweet moment when they allow themselves to return, if only briefly, to their passionate love for each other, a love that has been usurped by their conflicting identity politics. Required for this moment was a full-on, uninhibited, lingering kiss. Apparently someone in this production feared the anti-gay policies of America.
The play opens in a small flat in Cairo inhabited by an Egyptian man named Mohammed. He stumbles around the room in severe pain. He's been detained in prison for the past week where he was severely beaten and tortured. His boyfriend Nicholas—a British expatriate writer—comes rushing through the door and is manically distraught by what has occurred. And here—at the very beginning of a more-than-two-hour play—begins the slow dissolution of their partnership. It's too bad I hadn't been allowed for at least a few minutes to viscerally understand the passion and romance they felt only a week ago. Maybe if I had, I would have cared about what was being lost.
Why Mohammed was detained and tortured is not made entirely clear. It could be because he's gay, or because he was once a liberal political cartoonist mocking the corruption of the authoritative regime. But the play is not particularly concerned with exploring the egregious violation of human rights that occurred; the author is more interested in letting it serve as a catalyst to Mohammed's transformation from a liberal thinker to a dangerous Muslim fundamentalist. And plenty more reasons are given for his drastic change in thinking. He abrades himself for his lack of fealty to his Family (especially his conservative father); he feels he is failing his country for not fighting against the corruption; he becomes suddenly disgusted by his homosexuality; and he becomes weary with guilt for not behaving as a proper Muslim. Not to mention he perceives his boyfriend now as some kind of progeny of the Viceroys. But all these motivations become something of a stew, diluting the central theme they were to support.
And then there is Nicholas, whose own dramatic shift of ideals happens in the first five minutes of the play—too quickly to be believable. When he first came to Egypt he felt set free from the stiff, dispassionate persona that England engendered. He threw his keys into the Nile, symbolically gesturing his loyalty to Egypt. But within minutes of seeing Mohammed's bruised body, England becomes the land of the free and Egypt a deadly place to live. He's supposed to be a well-educated man, and a writer, so I find it preposterous that he was ignorant of Egypt's poor record of human rights, especially in their treatment of homosexuals.
But what he didn't know doesn't matter. All that matters to him now is procuring a visa for his lover so he can go back to England with him. We never get a chance to actually see him as a lover of Egypt, it is only known by several expository monologues framed as memories; a device that becomes nearly suffocating as we wait for something to happen in the here and now. And when it does it's annoyingly predictable. For example, we understand way too early in the play that Mohammed has no intention of leaving. His mind is clearly made up, so it becomes quickly tedious for us to watch Nicholas make every argument for why he should leave. "Someone slap that guy and tell him it's over," I thought, halfway through.
The lyrical skill Coash has with language is evident and admirable; but at the same time it's self-indulgent. He seems not to trust his actors to convey anything without his words. That's a shame because Keith Merrill who plays Nicholas and Sameer Sheikh who plays Mohammed are both committed and forceful actors. And if director Kim T. Sharp had only directed them to listen to each other rather than wait for their cues, perhaps their dialogue would have felt less like exposition and more like a sincere conversation between lovers.
I would be remiss not to mention the captivating Pamela Paul. Her unforgettable performance briefly breathes some life and mystery into the play. Despite the direction, and despite the writing, she finds the silent moments of disquietude. Her character, Ms. Nevers, works at the British Embassy and has the power to grant the visa. She's cunning, yet something of a therapist for Nicholas, whom she interviews (or interrogates) several times. Her diatribe on the savage behavior committed in the defense of love is convincing and stirring.
Yet it is also another monologue in a play with far too many. Coash's story is more tailored for the page; for the stage it is not suited.