Review: San Jose Stage’s compelling ‘Disgraced’ does not allow for an escape

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(L to R) Emily (Allison F. RIch), Amir (Damien Seperi), Jory (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) and Isaac (Jonathan Rhys Williams) all have something explosive to hide in Ayan Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” Through Feb. 26th in downtown San Jose. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

Amir Kapoor identifies as an apostate. In this case, he denies his former religion, and denies his heritage. In the cutthroat world of law and partnerships, trying to make partner in a Jewish law firm, this is not the time or place to go around advertising your Muslim beliefs.

Amir believes the Muslim religion is arcane – a group of people trying to go back to the seventh century, quite literally, where barbaric practices ruled the day.

Amir has a stunning Manhattan apartment, married to Emily, a white woman artist who is fascinated with all things Islam, things that touch her on many levels, especially artistically. But you can also say that fascination is also driven by the almighty dollar. Emily’s art career is ready for an explosion of riches.

These two compelling folks are at the heart of a solid production of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” now up and running at San Jose Stage Company, directed with great pace by William Ontiveros. It is a magnificent script by Akhtar, a 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner. On the heels of the epic judicial defeat that was President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the play couldn’t be timelier, maybe more than ever in its production history. And while the show had moments that are a bit confounding acting wise, San Jose Stage’s productions is designed for maximum truths, an issue that only has gotten more pervasive as we watch a religion move through space with a figurative and literal target on its back.

Amir (Damien Seperi) has big plans for his wife Emily (Allison F. Rich) and himself as he saunters around his apartment replete with top shelf liquor and perfectly pressed dress shirts. It’s a big night for Amir, as he is hosting a dinner for a fellow attorney at the firm, the gorgeous African-American woman Jory (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) and her curator hubby Isaac (Jonathan Rhys Williams). This is a huge meeting for both of their careers, namely because Isaac is ready to move on bringing Emily’s work into the fold of the Whitney museum for a high end art show.

Where the show draws its power from is the fact that there are secrets everywhere. Start with Amir, who goes to incredible lengths to deny the truth of his identity, yet he represented an imam in court charged with raising terrorist funds. And isn’t it strange that he is the only member of his family that has the surname Kapoor? That’s because the rest of his family goes by the last name Abdullah. Amir is not Indian; he is Pakistani. While hiding behind all of the material possessions of the Manhattan elite, Amir’s secrets are dark and destructive.

That’s just the beginning of the lies that are all over the room. There are relationships that do not paint anyone in a good light. There are decisions that have been made in regards to Amir’s career and the rewards he believes are waiting for him.

And ultimately, one of the lies of Emily and Isaac explodes all over the face of Emily, in a wildly effective yet unsettling moment.

There are certainly wonderful moments that zing around the stage in 85 uninterrupted minutes, despite the fact that myself and other guests were distracted by cue calling in the tech booth that was a bit too loud. Seperi gets into a much greater rhythm as the play goes on, but his acting style is confounding initially, with some moments falling flat early on, namely his apology for losing his cool with his nephew Abe (Salim Razawi), a moment where no cool was really lost. Speaking of Razawi, both he and Seperi brought compelling moments to each of their scenes, and the Abe’s patriotism with his first outfit contrasted nicely with his much stronger commitment to Islam near the end of the play.

Rich is a consistently solid performer who has to do some things here that really require a commitment to huge character shifts throughout the play. And both Smith-McGlynn and Williams are fierce performers who both drove scenes and listened in other moments.

This script, with all of its moving pieces, does not provide for an escapist piece of theatre. It cuts right to the heart of the flesh, and opens wounds for everyone to see. But what is actually seen is up to each individual. It might just be a beautiful piece of art. But sometimes a beautiful piece of art is just an illusion.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

San Jose Stage Company presents “Disgraced”
Written by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by William Ontiveros
The Word: A play that has an infinite amount of discussion possibilities, and a piece that has probably never been more timely.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through Feb. 26th
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street, San Jose, CA
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org

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