Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” in a spine tingling outing at San Diego Rep.

If you think this election cycle is a stomach turner, look no further than Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning drama “Disgraced” now in no holds barred production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre thru Nov. 13th.  

Akhtar’s play is a microcosm of what we are witnessing across the country, state after state and on national TV where unfettered accusations and inflammatory barbs cut to the core of what’s on the minds and in the hearts of Americans after 9/11: race, religion, terrorist attacks and Islamophobia. Forget nuance or civility.

The play, which is Akhtar’s first and the most currently produced around world, is neatly packaged as two couples are seated at the dinner table in the upscale New York apartment of Amir and Emily Kapoor (not his given name). Their dinner guests are Isaac and Jory, (no last names) colleagues and friends on different levels. There’s an ethnic pecking order here as will soon learn.

Monique Gaffney and Richard Baird
Some compare “Disgraced” to Albee’s “Virginia Wolfe” or Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” reviewed earlier now playing at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. Think both and times it by ten. It’s quite an eye opener. It scratches deeper into the wounds of the human condition and allows the threat of losing our ideals, our freedoms and our good manners all in the name of fear. That's fear of the other, fear of losing the ‘good old days’ and fear of change.

Amir is now at a crossroads. At the urging of his nephew Abe (an excellent M. Keala Miles, Jr.) he pleads for his uncle to represent his Imam who was being tried for collecting money at his Mosque and using it to fund terrorist activities. Rather than represent the Imam, Amir shows up to watch the proceedings. In the aftermath, he made a statement to the press that was quoted in the New York Times.

Ronobir Lahiri  
Amir (Ronobir Lahiri) was born in this country to Muslim parents. They lived in India before the country was split and is now Pakistan. This will later become an issue for Amir as he told his bosses on his application that his parents were born in India, which in fact they were, but it complicates his life and life style.

Now instead of being looked at as a cooperate lawyer, he is looked at and judged by the color of his skin, his religion and culture. (He goes to the front of the line when boarding a plane because he knows he is going to be profiled anyway.)

The first signs of his being ‘the other’ in the work place starts to unravel when his bosses question him about his own birth and the legitimacy of his name (which he changed). His veneer wears thin when his actions at home don’t reflect what he professes he denounced. Over fennel and anchovy salad, his past teachings come back big time and bite him in the behind.  We begin to see the cracks in his perfect looking marriage, his perfect job and his perfect looking life style.

Allison Spratt Pearce,  Ronobir Lahiri and Monique Gaffney
According to Amir, he has renounced his Muslim faith; doesn’t practice, thinks most of the Koran is backward in its thinking and he wants no part of it. He is a big shot in a Jewish Law firm that deals in acquisitions. In short he believes in American Capitalism; he spends $600.00 on Charvet shirts, and hopes to be promoted by his Jewish bosses sooner rather than later.

“You know I’m going to end up with my name on the firm? Leibowitz, Bernstein, Harris and Kapoor.” “My mother would roll over in her grave.” “It’s not the family name so she might not care…seeing it along all those Jewish ones.”

Monique Gaffney, Ronobir Lahiri, Allison Spratt Pearce and Richard Baird
Emily (Allison Spratt Pearce) is a WASP. She is also a painter just coming in to her own. She used to paint landscapes but that got her nowhere. Now she obsessed with everything having to do with Islamic Traditions. “The Islamic Galleries? It’ll change the way you see art.” “The Muslims gave us Aristotle. Without their translations? We wouldn’t have him. I mean without the Arabs? We wouldn’t even have a visual perspective.”

Isaac (Richard Baird) is curator at the Whitney and is showing a great deal of interest in her paintings. He’s a good friend and for the most part the couples are on good terms. “You know what you are going to be accused of?  Orientalism. It’s inevitable. I mean hell, you’ve even got the brown husband.”

He agrees to bring her paintings to the museum and show them. Did I mention that he’s Jewish? Later on when news of Amir’s not getting the partnership comes to the fore and the s**t hits the fan, Emily spews, “Jews. You see anti-Semitism everywhere.”

Jory (Monique Gaffney) is Isaac’s African American wife. ‘Nuff said! She works along with Amir in the same law offices. She surprises Amir with the news that some of the bigger accounts have been transferred to her now. (“He said something about you being duplicitous. That’s why you’re such a good litigator.”) Amir will later accuse her stealing his job, and her husband Isaac of stealing his wife, but according to Isaac, “They liked her. They don’t like him.”

Her philosophy is a quote from Kissinger hanging over her desk, “If faced with choosing justice or order, I’ll always chose order.” This belief grew out of her breaking out of her ghetto life and becoming the new partner in the law firm, something Amir will learn about in a short time.

With the exception of Ms. Gaffney coming on a little too strong at the top of her performance (she settled in later) the cast, in every way lived up to their character studies. Mr. Lahiri, a handsome hunk, makes his way through his character with credibility showing his arc as he moves from cooperate lawyer and loyal husband to dealing with his conflicted religious beliefs to the complete destruction of everything he tried to build in forming his perfect looking world.

Coming in as the supportive and loving, and yes naïve wife Allison Spratt Pearce is right on target with every emotion from authentic to unbelieving to crushed. Most often yours truly sees Ms. Pearce in musical theatre. While her voice is to die for, she shows her acting chops off as Emily with softness and believability.

Monique Gaffney’s Jory is bit more of a complicated role to pull off. She has to navigate through her own rise to power and her self discovery about her husbands infidelity, while consoling Amir through is plunge into the darkness. She too pilots it well.

Richard Baird, a strong presence on any stage, manages his role of the Jew with part humor, part self-depredation. (“Every religion’s got idiosyncrasies. My ancestors didn’t like lobster. Who doesn’t like lobster?”) He too maneuvers the ethnic jungle with conviction enough for yours truly to make him an honorary M.O.T.

Ronobir Lahiri amd Richard Baird
John Iacovelli designed the immaculate set with patio overlooking New York’s Upper East Side and street noises can be heard by way of Brian Gale’s sound design. Anastasia Poutova designed the appropriate upper middle class, eclectic garments worn by the characters and Kevin Anthenill’s lighting put the finishing touches to an overall enlightening evening of excellent theatre.

Akhtar tears away at the masks we wear in order to get along to go along. When push comes to shove, we usually show up in our true colors.  

(Isaac. “Did you feel pride on September 11th?”
Amir. “If I’m honest ... yes. 
Emily. “You don’t really mean that, Amir. 
Amir. “I was horrified by it, okay? Absolutely horrified.”
Jory. “Pride about what? About the towers coming down? About people getting killed? 
Amir. “That we were finally winning. 
Jory. “We? 

Amir. “Yeah ... I forgot ... which we I was. 
After seeing this splendid and gut wrenching production with Michael Arabian in the director’s chair, we in the audience are left devastated to think that in fact, the playwright might be talking about us!
Talk among yourselves.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 13th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-544-1000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: $38.00-$64.00
Venue: Lyceum Theatre

Photo: Daren Scott

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