Karen Hartman's "Gum" concerns itself with women's roles in Islamic society, but in a scattershot fashion that does little to increase the audience's understanding of its subject.
By DAVID BOGOSLAW
The price that a woman out of step with her society is made to pay for her
sexual defiance has been a fertile subject for dramatists and authors
since well before Hester Prynne's indiscretion in puritanical
Massachusetts. In the play "Gum," currently in its New York premiere at the
Women's Project and Productions Theater on West 55th Street, it is Islamic
puritanism that provides context, but playwright Karen Hartman has bitten
off more than she or we can chew.
Two sisters, Rahmi and Lina, free to appear unveiled in the privacy of
their family courtyard, have succumbed to the illicit pleasures of foreign
chewing gum, which Ms. Hartman means to serve as a symbol, and surrogate,
for sexual pleasure. The idea that imported chewing gum might contain
some secret ingredient designed by the West to undermine the moral purity
of Islamic women is at once paranoid and typically Iranian, given the
doctrine of "Westoxication" that helped usher in the Islamic Revolution of
1979 and the seizing of the American embassy in Teheran. Had Karen
Hartman's enigmatic play "Gum" contented itself with exploring that idea,
it might have succeeded better than it does.
|Written by: Karen Hartman.|
Directed by: Loretta Greco.
Cast: Daphne Rubin-Vega, Angel Desai, Firdous Bamji, Lizan Mitchell.
No specific country is named in "Gum," but we recognize the Islamic Republic
of Iran from everything we have seen and read. While we may be tempted to
accept Ms. Hartman's view of women's sexual desires as more or less
universal, there are cultural nuances we sense have been left out. The play's
weakness is that it never makes up its mind whether it is about female
genital mutilation, sexual repression of women in Islamic society, a
younger sister's identity crisis or the suspected corruption of Islamic
society by insidious western influences. Any one of these would have
served as rich subject matter for theatrical exploration. Muddled
together as they are in "Gum," we are left to wonder what the playwright
wants us to take away at the play's conclusion.
Both Ms. Hartman's writing and Loretta Greco's direction appear not to be
committed to fully realizing the painful truths that lurk beneath the
Baroque surface of the play. The climactic scene where Rahmi's sexual
indiscretion in a car is revealed to her family and fiance opts for a
premature blackout, thus denying us the emotional wallop we deserve,and
need, to better understand what follows.
Given the jumble they have to work with, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Angel Desai
as Rahmi and Lina manage to hold our attention. Rubin-Vega's secret
weapon is her raspily-sensual voice, which she uses perfectly to convey
the pleasure she has taken with two boys in the back seat of a car. She
succeeds somewhat less in making us believe that Rahmi has serious plans
to become a doctor and escape her fate in this repressive society. Desai
fully comes into her own in the play's coda, which disorients us by making
it seem as if we have been concerned with the wrong sister for the
previous hour. Firdous Bamji makes the most of a thankless role of
Rahmi's suitor and eventual fiance and Lizan Mitchell presents a
particular feistiness as the Auntie which seems out of context in the
Not that "Gum" isn't full of tantalizing ideas about women, sex, identity
and freedom. But Karen Hartman has not crafted a narrative of sufficient
weight to accommodate them and let them fall into their proper places.
Most disappointing is the playwright's apparent willingness to perpetuate
the idea of an intriguing, yet opaque Islamic culture that westerners too
seldom go beyond. Gum is packed with evocative cultural details. The
call to prayer that opens and closes the play, the overturned chairs
signifying a period of mourning and the steaming water poured into a
courtyard pool to prepare a bath vividly suggest a world we want to
understand. But these are mere decoration in a play that won't allow us
to fathom the psychological depths of its characters.
As a metaphor for sex, gum loses its flavor long before the play hits its
|OCTOBER 28, 1999|
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