The New York Times says a lot of things, but now it’s outdone itself — so thinks Amir Kapoor, a Pakistan-born lawyer the paper names as a supporter of an imam accused of aiding terrorists. Not only did his Islamophile American artist wife sweet-talk him onto the case; he’s in trouble at work as his bosses investigate his claim to his heritage.
The irony is that Amir has renounced Islam, asserting that it’s not in the least a religion of peace. And tonight, his ire will turn to unbounded fury among a group of preppy young professionals, prompting his termination from his firm and fueling a jet-black flap on religion, terrorism and the national consciousness.
Right meets left once and for all in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, a testament to the wholesale fractiousness of current events and to San Diego Repertory Theatre’s prowess onstage. Out of question, this show is a five-star force of nature, featuring four eminently realized characters whose flaws run the gamut and whose redemptions are excruciatingly difficult as mythologies and stereotypes swirl around them.
Each production value colors the next in a kaleidoscope of thought and form; everything — absolutely everything — is across the street from everything else.
Amir’s taste for scotch will trail him to the dinner table as he and wife Emily prepare to receive Isaac and Jory, who fit right in at Amir’s high-end Upper East Side digs. Isaac is an art gallery curator who’s about to include some of Emily’s Islam-inspired paintings in a show; wife Jory is an attorney and mentee at Amir’s office.
The significance of 2011 isn’t lost on them — one of the most heinous acts in the history of civilization unfolded in their own city only ten years before, and its memory is in no short supply as know-it-all Isaac dares Amir to justify his anti-Islam views in an age of political correctness.
Amir doubles down on his changes of heart, chastising Iran’s leaders for their desire to wipe Israel off the map. “It’s wrong,” he says over his fennel salad. “And it comes from somewhere. And that somewhere is Islam.” Isaac is unconvinced, stoking the flames by asking if Amir didn’t feel the least bit of pride on 9/11.
…[T]his isn’t so much a situational drama as a lofty statement on the errant illusion behind human perception.
Things escalate from there as politics, art and family pull Amir from the Islamic moorings he may never really have abandoned. Circuitously, Emily’s innocent entreaties in the imam’s favor culminate in Amir’s ruination.
The waiter who stared at the beautiful white woman and her brown husband; the prickly Muslim nephew who clings to his faith; Amir’s employment under Jewish partners; the $600 price tag on his work shirts; the French ban on the Muslim headscarf; the nature of Jewish Isaac and black Jory’s relationship; an illicit tryst that fuels the domestic violence sanctioned in the Quran: Akhtar thoroughly and relentlessly devises every subtextual twist, shrewdly exploiting his craftsmanship in the process. Layer upon developmental layer persuade us that this isn’t so much a situational drama as a lofty statement on the errant illusion behind human perception.
Indeed, reality left the discussion a long time ago amid the characters’ innumerable flaws — when it returns, the loss of a job, home and marriage are the least of Amir’s worries.
And when the going gets tough, the cast under director Michael Arabian and assistant Ralph Gregory Hurst gets altogether tougher. Ronobir Lahiri’s Amir is a study in contradiction, whose struggles have left an indelible smirk beneath smouldering, suspicious eyes. M. Keala Milles, Jr.’s nephew Abe is histrionically spot-on as he decries the state of his faith.
Richard Baird and Monique Gaffney have been among San Diego’s versions of royalty for centuries; their bigmouth Isaac and studious Jory fuel just such a chemistry as their castmates respond in kind. And every acting student needs to watch Allison Spratt Pearce soar as Emily. Her physicality takes on a life of its own in each context, and it’s a joy to behold.
Isaac should save his energy and learn to dress himself — his hilarious color mismatches, courtesy costumer Anastasia Pautova, have a number of parallels among the other players. Brian Gale’s lights and Kevin Anthenill’s sound provide collaborative backdrop behind John Iacovelli’s set, whose upscale tidiness catches us unawares amid the war of words to follow.
Disgraced won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent revelation of the perps’ murky ties to ISIS. Heartrending events in Orlando, San Bernardino and my beloved France have unfolded since, with real-life Emily apologists cringing at the spectacles. Pakistani American Akhtar, as if to address them, is quoted in a program note: “I do believe personally that the Muslim world has got to account for the image the West has of it and move on.”
So stands his immaculate play, illuminating a stronghold in the public mind and manifest in this unutterably superior show, probably the best Rep entry in my 17 years’ coverage in California. If its production values are marvelous theater, they’re all the more brilliant within what has evolved into a fervent — nay, visceral — national debate.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Oct. 26. Disgraced runs through Nov. 13 at the Lyceum stage, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $25-$74. sdrep.org, 619-544-1000.