Theater review: ‘Haram Iran’ at the Celebration Theatre

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In Islam, the term ‘haram’ means ‘forbidden,’ a sentiment that courses across ‘Haram Iran’ at Celebration Theatre. Jay Paul Deratany’s fact-based play about two Iranian teens convicted of being gay in 2005 receives a vivid albeit uneven West Coast premiere.

We begin with abstractions of the 1979 revolution erupting on the exposed scaffolding of designer Kurt Boetcher’s set. This introduces Mrs. Marhoni (Anoush NeVart), whose ritual passage from Paris-educated idealist to hijab-wearing matron typifies director Michael Matthews’ inventive staging.

The prologue gives way to 2003, when student protests spurred the theocracy to increasingly repressive tactics. Here we meet Mrs. Marhoni’s son, Ayaz (Tamer Aziz), a loner given to reading taboo English books. Ayaz disdains the soccer that consumes fundamentalist Fareed (Michael Tauzin) and athletic Mahmoud (Narendra ‘Andy’ Gala). Ayaz would rather discuss Holden Caulfield and dream of Western migration. Fareed views Ayaz’s perspective as blasphemy. It captivates Mahmoud, though, and their burgeoning friendship leads to calamity.

Where this harrowing narrative succeeds is in Matthews’ restless yet focused direction, in tandem with Tim Swiss’ stark lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ best sound design, and the valiant cast. Aziz and Gala have a potent, often wordless rapport, countered by Tauzin’s imploding intensity and NeVart’s zigzags between humor and gravitas. Sila Agavale, Ayman Samman and Maz Siam complete the ensemble.

It’s an apt Celebration property and a story that sorely needs telling. This makes the limitations of Deratany’s script doubly frustrating, despite his sincerity and talent. The dialog is an erratic mix of sentiment and polemic, and the plotting courts melodrama before succumbing to manipulative excess. ‘Haram Iran’ contains flashes of pathos and visceral power, yet more nuance and less blunt force would better serve its admirable objective.

--David C. Nichols

‘Haram Iran,’ Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 4. $25. (323) 957-1884 or Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.