There’s something about Moody. When he’s a teenager, it’s obvious: he’s the leader and the daredevil, the one who is blithely indifferent to sensible moods, the one who knows how to dance and what CD to put on his boombox (Britney Spears obviously). He knows what to order in gay bars and he claims, quite convincingly, that he knows how to toast.
But as he ages into his 20s and 30s in “Drowning in Cairo,” Moody (Amin El Gamal) still has an unbreakable hold on Khalid (Wiley Naman Strasser) and Taha (Martin Yousif Zebari) — even when Moody is him. -even broken.
In Adam Ashraf Elsayigh’s play, whose Golden Thread Productions world premiere opened Monday (April 11) at San Francisco’s Potrero Stage, the trio were part of the real 2001 raid on the Queen Boat, a gay club floating on the Nile. Egyptian police arrested and tortured 52 men they found, though of the three characters in the play, only Moody suffers the full brunt of the law; Khalid’s powerful father breaks his son out of jail, and Taha spends some of his time in a juvenile facility.
In theory, “Drowning in Cairo” has it all. It marks the leadership debut of Golden Thread’s new executive creative director Sahar Assaf, who took over from founder Torange Yeghiazarian last year. It tells a story that will likely complicate many American audiences’ mental images of gay men and Arab men. It richly envisions its characters, each with their own full story arc, embodied by a cast of actors who never hit a wrong note, whether they’re playing Jejun teenagers or their jaded older selves.
Strasser is a riot as the hormone-laden Khalid; it’s like, among other options, he’s always trying to use telekinesis to find himself, El Gamal’s Moody, and a bed in one place.
Zebari’s Taha is the perfect addition as the group’s gullible junior; he is ready to accept and absorb anything, like a stone and a sponge at the same time, as long as he can keep up.
And then there’s Moody, whom El Gamal portrays with an air of diva worthy of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. He bends. He pouts. He reigns. He hesitates. In his youth, he overflowed with boldness, but as his world undermined him, suddenly and gradually, El Gamal’s sharp performance analyzes the effect of violent oppression on mind, body and the mind.
Yet “Drowning in Cairo” is overloaded. Elsayigh’s dialogue continues to demand that the characters talk about what they’re talking about — pouring each other drinks, for example — but in a way that ruffles rather than builds up tension.
A story about Moody writing a memoir, which could show the world what the raid did to them and perhaps make things better for gay people in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, earns nothing; it is never clear if Moody’s is actually a good writer or if we should care about a manuscript in which he places so little importance himself. Then it becomes grounds for a second-act character twist from the end of nowhere in Taha, but one that’s more shrug-inducing than shock-inducing.
All the while, Elsayigh keeps the series’ larger political context very explicit, with references like notches on a timeline to where the characters find themselves in the build-up, experience, and aftermath of the Arab Spring.
When “Drowning in Cairo” focuses on her love triangle, it works beautifully, her perfectly calibrated relationships vibrating with an energy that’s just as likely to erupt in a kiss as it does in a scuffle. When it expands in this timeline, it falls flat.
L“Drowning in Cairo”: Written by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh. Directed by Sahar Assaf. Until May 1. Two hours, 20 minutes. $20 to $100. Potrero Scene, 1695 18th St., SF 415-626-4061. www.goldenthread.org