Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Amir (Jared N. Wright) is posing in his underwear and Emily (Ilana Niernberger) is sketching him in their upscale Manhattan apartment. He's a well-paid M&A attorney, angling to make partner in his firm, while Emily is poised to make her big breakthrough in the heady New York art world. Amir's Pakistani-Muslim past has been covered up by a change of his last name to Kapoor, which comes out when his nephew Abe (Adrian Causor) arrives to plead for his help. Abe's own given name is Hussein, but "life has gotten so much easier" since he changed it. Nevertheless, he's here to ask Amir to speak for a local imam charged with funding terrorism, arguing that the other attorneys on the case aren't Muslim and therefore can't help in the same way Amir can. Amir agrees to do what he can, and lives to regret it.
Later, Isaac (Mike Schaeffer), a local curator about to launch a big show, quizzes Emily about her use of Islamic art and tradition in her current work, which she defends from a strictly cultural standpoint. Amir makes it clear that he has distanced himself from Islam and prefers her earlier landscapes, but Isaac is intrigued by the implications of a white artist pursuing Islamic influences, adding his own perspective as a Jew.
When Isaac and his wife come for dinner, the conversation becomes tense, as each statement feels like a bomb dropped onto the fragile Jenga of civility. Turns out Jory (Jazmine Pierce), attractive and accomplished, and African-American, is another attorney in Amir's firm, and for a bit they get to mull over the jockeying for partner; Amir even proposes a partnership of their own, likening them to "the new Jews," the next "ethnic" diversity to climb the ladder of success. But clashes escalate over drinks and a chic fennel-anchovy salad, gloves come off, and disaster swiftly follows.
How much of this is about identity? About a denial of one's heritage and/or faith background? Doesn't Amir have the right to deplore what he considers the archaic tenets of the Koran? His defense of the imam comes to haunt him in his bid for partnership, revealing his true background. This isn't Jew vs. Muslim, or white vs. black, but an introduction to identity politics and the age-old plight of the immigrant who, assimilated as much as possible, can never fully "fit in." Emily captures this disconnect in her portrait of Amir, an homage to the famous painting Portrait of a Moor, by Jan Mostaert. In Isaac's description, Emily artfully reveals Amir's conflict of "place"epitomizing both his assimilation and his inability to ever fully hide in his chosen culture. Akhtar muddies the waters a bit with a sexual subplot and actions on Amir's part that are surprisingbut maybe that brings home the point even further, emphasizing a cultural past that lies just beneath the surface.
It's a brave play in a culture that needs to have brave conversations about who we are and what we demand of each other, and our collective inability to listen and fully understand one another. There is no blame here, only an effort to break open a closet door and blast it wide so that post-play discussions can ponder the challenge posed to us all.
All five actors in the cast are quite capable and skilled, capturing the tenuous hold on relationships and easily conveying the art of intellectual banter, the kind that can turn dark all too quickly. Wright and Niernberger are a little tentative in their marriage at first, but warm to each other in later scenes, before the fur starts flying. Schaeffer is exquisite as in-command Isaac, no apologies, no excuses, and no holding back. Pierce makes a credible attorney and equally a pissed-off wife. Causor remains a little one-note as the hapless Abe, but manages in the end to draw a line between him and Amir.
Phoebe Moyer's direction grabs the important points of the play but fails to land some of the humor, a necessary counterpoint to the heaviness. Set design by Argo Thompson conveys the upscale lifestyle, although the dark charcoal walls seem an odd choice in an artist's home. Lighting by April George casts some beautiful imagery, especially when including the balcony. Sandra Ish's costume design serves the characters and their status. Nice work on props from Vicki Martinez and Phoebe Moyer, delivering an edible salad and credible art work.
It may take a while for this play to sink in and deliver some of its importance. You'll find yourself thinking about it long after the lights come up. See it now, in this excellent production, and see it with friends so you can talk about it later. A definite don't miss.
Disgraced, through February 18, 2018, at Left Edge Theatre, Studio Theater, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa CA. Tickets $25.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at www.leftedgetheatre.com or by phone at 707-546-3600.