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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Stage
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's recent review of Ideation

Photo: Allison F. Rich, Damien Seperi,
Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, and Jonathan Rhys Williams

Photo by Dave Lepori
If in the midst of the salad course at a dinner party with friends, friendly chatter begins to be peppered by the topics of a) religion, b) ethnic origins, c) politics, then politely remember you left something burning on the stove at home and dash out immediately. At least that could be one lesson learned while watching the engaging, explosive 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced. More importantly, when put into the capable hands of the excellent ensemble assembled by The Stage under the able direction by William Ontiveros, Disgraced implores us each to delve deeply to find and admit the prejudices and stereotypes that lie somewhere buried within—no matter how hard we try to deny them. Of even further importance in the context of current political events and decrees, Disgraced raises necessary and important questions about the status, rights, and plight of present-day Muslim Americans.

Amir (Damien Seperi) is an aggressive, up-and-coming M&A (mergers and acquisitions) lawyer in a high-powered firm who likes to wear $300 Charvet shirts and drink lots of expensive liquor. He is also fast to describe the religion of his childhood, Islam, as "a backward way of thinking" and the Quran as "one long hate letter to humanity." And he has changed his original Pakistani name (and even his Social Security identity) to one that presents himself to the world as probable Hindu.

Amir's Caucasian wife Emily (Allison F. Rich) is an artist who is turning away from landscapes and engrossing herself in Arabic, geometric patterns that she discovered on a trip to the mosques of the Middle East, leading her to gush with unabashed enthusiasm about the "beauty and wisdom" of the Islamic tradition. "Without the Arabs, we would not have visual perspective," she expounds. His nephew Abe Jenson (Salim Razawi) has rejected his given name Hussein Malik as part of his American assimilation but still is entreating his reluctant uncle to help out an imam whom Abe believes is being wrongly accursed of being a terrorist (as part of the post 9/11 paranoia sweeping the nation). Amir is reluctant to step in to help; Emily is totally insistent he does; and the New York Times is quick to connect him and his Jewish-owned law firm to the imam's defense case after his final decision to show up at the hearing to appease them both.

But tonight, Amir and Emily are hosting their close friends for a dinner party: Emily's Jewish art agent Isaac (Jonathan Rhys Williams) and his wife Jory (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn), who is also Amir's African-American colleague at the law firm and herself a high-powered, ready-to-be-partner lawyer. Tightly intertwined in their spousal, friendship, and business associations, this highly diverse group also to a person happens to be full of firm opinions and quick to engage with each other passionately and persistently. Most certainly, they are not individuals who back down easily on stands taken—especially once primed with booze, challenged with their own inconsistencies, or irked by perceived, personal insults (even if only through indirect implication).

When the conversation turns to topics like the traditions of Jews and Muslims and the assumptions others make about those faiths, racial profiling and other 9/11 aftermaths, women in veils and what Mohammed did or did not say about the treatment of women, or comparisons between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, things start turning uglier with each bite of served fennel. Across the beautifully appointed dinner table, arrows begin to shoot, finding sensitive targets that result in phrases being fired back like "you and your people," "you're full of self-loathing," and "your tribal pride." Insinuations and accusations explode like firecrackers as tones become icier, volumes rise, and everyone at one point or another appears pitted against everyone else. And to top it all, as tensions rise to boiling points over politics and religion, personal secrets among the gathered also start to unveil themselves—as all the while the scotch and port bottles are emptied. Once eruptions do occur, the volcanic destruction and damage is visceral and difficult to witness as an audience.

Each of the cast members is stunning in the performance rendered. The characters make credible cases early on as intelligent, accomplished, and loving/likable people. All are clearly of intense personality in ways that both attract as we meet them and then eventually repeal in small and large amounts as the minutes pass. Big smiles and bright, sparkling eyes seem as genuine as do the later pinched lips and glowered looks of anger and even hate. Each transforms in ways we may find surprising; but in after thought, the surprise seems na├»ve, given the clever clues in switched tones of voice or subtle shifts in mannerisms and looks provided by skilled actors. And through the skills of playwright, director and actors, we can easily find sympathies for each as well as reasons to reject each totally. None makes the case as being entirely right or justified in opinion, action, or outcome; nor is any one person totally to be condemned—even when some of the individual actions are truly deplorable.

Along with his own exquisite timing for orchestrating these actors and their pace of emotional flows and inevitable confrontations, director William Ontiveros is greatly aided by a high-performing creative team. Guilio Cesare Perrone has designed an apartment flat that is high in style and dotted with artsy touches that accentuate the likes, values and backgrounds of its inhabitants. The framed shadows from the New York apartment's windows hover broadly over the room in a beautiful portending of mysteries yet to be uncovered, thanks to the overall well-executed lighting design of Maurice Vercoutere. Steve Schoenbeck's sound design and electronic music set the mood of fast-paced lives lived intensely, while Abra Berman's costumes leave no doubt as to the well-off, style-conscious status of those we meet at the dinner party.

In the end, what we are left with is a series of gut-wrenching questions about our own built-in prejudices (admitted or not); about the directions our own society is taking as diversity of race, religion, and opinion come more and more under the microscope; and about the limits we and those around us are willing to be pushed to before breaking points are hit. As extreme to the edge as Ayad Akhtar has pushed his characters, we are left with the stark realization that nothing we have heard or seen is that unbelievable. With impeccable timing in this post-inauguration era of 2017 to provide new meaning and insights to what was conceived as a post-9/11 play, The Stage's production of Disgraced can do nothing but give each of us pause. How can we as audience not assess and wonder at our own quickness to judge and even condemn those different from us—with those whom we clearly do not agree?

Disgraced continues through February 26, 2017, at The Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA. Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.

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