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Only a Scratch 

Interesting questions lack resolution in this otherwise nimbly written play

Wednesday, Jul 25 2001
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"Ever since I learned of female circumcision," writes Torange Yeghiazarian in her program notes to Deep Cut, "sex has become a religious experience for me. It's as if with every orgasm I take revenge on those who attempt to deprive my sisters of the experience."

Orgasms as a kind of social justice? I've never thought of that.

Deep Cut is a newish play by Karim Alrawi about the family of a young, Westernized, half-Egyptian woman who was forced, as a girl, to be partially circumcised. She harbors resentment against her white American father for letting it happen. This resentment ruins a genteel dinner already complicated by a divorce, an engagement, and a doctor from China. So much happens at the dinner, in fact, that Alrawi can almost get away with his claim, in a separate program note, that Deep Cut is "a play about family and how families are constructed," not about female circumcision. But he's named it Deep Cut. And this production comes equipped with four brief essays in the program, including the one by Yeghiazarian (artistic director for Golden Thread Productions), meant to raise awareness of a brutal practice rooted in thousands of years of tradition. Is it right or wrong? Should it be stopped? This is the play's theme, and Alrawi -- an Egyptian man raised partly in England -- handles it with a moral curiosity that should stand by itself; it doesn't need so much ponderous apologizing and defending.

The young main character, Farah (Atosa Babaoff), shows up late to dinner on an island in Puget Sound. The house belongs to an Englishwoman, Jennifer, who will be Farah's dad's next wife. In the first scenes we see Jennifer caught between her ex-husband, Bertrand, and Farah's dad, Andrew. Bertrand is a fairly obnoxious philosophy professor who wears Hawaiian prints; Andrew is a preppy-looking psychologist. Another guest is Chan, a doctor from Beijing who was tortured by his government for saving wounded students after the Tiananmen massacre. This mix of personalities lays the groundwork for a conversation about Taoism, Jungianism, postmodern relativism, and general ethics; it also leads to a mess of emotions that the playwright can barely control.

The person under attack here is Andrew, a liberal-minded man who believes other cultures, as a rule, shouldn't be meddled with. "It would be arrogant of me to impose my values on others," he says, and to back up his position he can cite examples from history as well as pop culture. (Starfleet's "prime directive" in Star Trek is Don't Interfere.) Bertrand, the philosopher, calls Andrew a typical flimsy product of postmodern thinking -- a moral relativist -- although Farah herself understands her father's position. She hates Mormons meddling in Egypt, for example. "In Egypt they baptize dead people and claim their souls. Did you know Ramses II was a Mormon?"

Still, she says, there must be a limit to the prime directive. Suppose Andrew had stood by while Farah had the tip of her clitoris removed by her (now-dead) Egyptian mother. Can he defend that? Or suppose he'd visited China and found the communists torturing Chan. Would he have interfered? These are interesting questions that never find a resolution in the play; instead they're carried away by a tide of unconvincing emotional politics. "You're my father," complains Farah. "You've hurt me, abused me, and now -- you're lying to me," and at this point the drama falls apart.

It's too bad, because Alrawi is otherwise a nimble writer. He can put real characters on the stage and let them talk naturally about ideas; his people are updated Shaw characters, without so much sparkling wit. This is rare. You hardly ever see mainstream, left-leaning people like Andrew put through the wringer so thoughtfully. But Alrawi loses control; he introduces all his ideas on a barge of irrational family-feeling that finally has to sink.

Phoebe Moyer plays Jennifer as cold but witty, trying to keep the conversation on a civilized level, and Louis Parnell is an effective Andrew, who turns out to be colder than his fiancee. Terry Lamb does well as the loud, middle-aged, oversensitive Bertrand, who likes to be offensive; Wayne Lee has a strong speech as Chan, describing his tortures in China. There is no lack of acting talent onstage. But all the performances feel studied and veiled, as if either the script or the director (Hal Gelb) has failed to inspire the cast.

Maybe no one can talk about cut clitorises with dispassion. Maybe as a topic it's too freighted with pain and history to allow clear, unselfconscious debate. Is the movement against female circumcision a kind of cultural colonialism? Is the practice tied up in "class patriarchal economic political social religious values," as one program essay insists, "and how they are related to sexual oppression of women (and poor men) in all parts of the world"? Does Andrew's relationship with his daughter mirror America's selective interventionist foreign policy? Karim Alrawi has written an interesting play, but it suffers, on all sides, from too much weighing in.

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