CRY SHALLOW, CRY HAVOC
by Kestryl Lowrey
published November 8, 2007
now playing Off Off Broadway at Abingdon Theater Arts Complex
through November 11
Love is dangerous. Pain is the evidence of love. These are eternal, irrefutable truths; or, at least, such would Ms. Nevers of Tom Coash’s Cry Havoc have us believe. Fear, love, and anger fuel Coash’s fiery (but ultimately unsurprising) play of uncertain love and mismatched expectations.
As far as subject matter goes, Coash has chosen a topic full of dramatic possibility. Taboo and emotions run high as a matter of course when dealing with issues of same-sex love in the Middle East, let alone when one of the star-crossed pair embodies the imperial mother England. Coash’s script, unfortunately, falls short of its potential. While there are a few strong exchanges and intense moments, most scenes could withstand substantial tightening. Each character manages a few good barbs about repressive regimes and Western imperialism, but the commentary is ultimately shallow, failing to contribute anything new to the ongoing dialectic between the East and West.
It’s clear that the actors in this play are trying hard. In fact, there are times when it seems that Keith Merrill and Sameer Sheikh (as Nicholas and Mohammed, respectively) are trying too hard. Coash has written a necessarily stilted relationship, but beyond it there is a sense of uneasiness that does not read as guilt, or shame, or disgust, but rather, simply as awkwardness on the part of the players. It may just be that the characters are as difficult for the actors to warm up to as the audience—it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for cocky Nicholas or defensive Mohammed.
Luckily, the awkwardness decreases (or, at least, becomes less obtrusive to the action) as the play progresses. Somehow, the relationship between Nicholas and Mohammed becomes more defined as it rapidly unravels. Beyond the strained male leads, Pamela Paul is a stand-out as Ms. Nevers, handling her character’s wit and (sometimes overly long) monologues with a deftness that make her scenes among the most entertaining in the play.
At times, it seems possible that the director (Kim T. Sharp) took the common mantra of “show, don’t tell” too seriously. Particularly, this is apparent as Nicholas gradually strips in the presence of Ms. Nevers as he seeks a traveling visa for Mohammed. Ms. Nevers’ probing questions already make it clear that Nicholas is being forced to lay himself bare; the accompanying visual is gratuitous exposure and pointless (full, frontal, and prolonged) nudity.
I was initially hopeful about this play’s possibilities, described to the press as “a British expatriate writer and his male Egyptian lover are forced to examine the fine line between conviction and obsession as they confront a repressive government and their own identities.” My thinking was that a play portrayed in this manner must be doing its part to broaden dialogue and overturn stereotypes. My thinking was wrong. I was surprised, to say the least, to watch as this play became yet another piece of media perpetuating the public imagination of all Muslim men as fundamentalist terrorists. This revelation would not have been so disappointing, perhaps, had it appeared as a plausible resolution to a character arc—a desperate measure for a desperate time. Unfortunately, Mohammed’s transformation is swift and lacks motivation. The Mohammed who waves a gun in Act II bears no resemblance to the Mohammed who begs his lover to hold him in Act I.
In the right hands, Cry Havoc could move beyond its stereotypic implications. The scenes between Nicholas and Mohammed could crackle with the same burning intensity of a guard’s cigarette pressed into unprotected and vulnerable flesh, and Mohammed’s reversal could become the only escape from the dead end which he imagines. Lacking this intensity, however, we are left with the Abingdon’s production, imagining Cry Havoc’s potential to ignite, spark, and explode.
kestryl.lowrey @ stageandcinema.com