BWW REVIEWS: DISGRACED and VIOLET Kick Off 2016 Strongly in Boston

DISGRACED

By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Gordon Edelstein; with Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance, Mohit Gautman, Benim Foster, and Shirine Babb

(Now through February 7, Avenue of the Arts, BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.huntingtontheatre.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-266-0800.)

Ayad Akhtar's searing Pulitzer Prize-winning drama DISGRACED provides no easy answers to the question of what it means to be a Muslim American in the age of terrorism. Still, with so many presidential candidates preying on people's fears and ignorance, the play's gritty exploration of identity and the cultural clashes between Islam, Judaism and Christianity is must-see theater.

Akhtar's central character Amir (Rajesh Bose) is an American-born Muslim who has rejected his religion and his parents' nationality in an effort to assimilate and achieve the rank of partner in the high-powered Jewish law firm that employs him. When a controversial Imam seeks his legal assistance through his impressionable nephew Abe (Mohit Gautam), Amir worries that his carefully crafted persona will unravel.

Pressure continues to mount when his artist/wife Emily (Nicole Lowrance) invites married friends Isaac (Benim Foster), a Jewish art gallery owner, and Jory (Shirine Babb), an African American attorney in Amir's law firm, to dinner. As the conversation turns from jovial everyday banter to religion, politics, 9/11 and Islamic culture, what is left of Amir's calculated control disintegrates, leaving him to wonder what he believes and who he truly is. With his high-powered "American Dream" now in tatters, can he reconcile the inner war between his Islamic heritage and his Western upbringing?

Director Gordon Edelstein and his superb cast attack head on the controversies and conflicts in playwright Akhtar's unflinching script. Measured pleasantries turn ugly in an instant with likable liberals suddenly, and surprisingly, sounding hateful and unapologetically cruel. Foster's haughty Isaac spews venom through a plastic smile. Babb's sarcastically funny Jory moves from sympathetic to scathing in the blink of an eye. Lowrance's disillusioned Emily becomes as coldly unforgiving as she once was naïve and kind. Gautam's Abe lets us see how easily questioning young minds can be swayed toward jihad.

Ultimately, though, it is Bose's tormented Amir that is truly haunting. He manages to make his character's arrogance, distance, anger and self-hatred understandable tools of self-preservation. He deftly gives us a window into the emptiness Amir feels, unable to live comfortably in either of his vastly different worlds. At the end we see a lost and broken man, but one who still has enough strength and pride to gaze deeply into his own heart for answers. None are given, but a sense of hope lingers.

PHOTOS BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON - Mohit Gautam as Abe, Nicole Lowrance as Emily, and Rajesh Bose as Amir; Shirine Babb as Jory, Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance and Benim Foster as Isaac

VIOLET

Music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Brian Crawley; directed by Paul Daigneault; musical direction, Matthew Stern; choreography, David Connolly; with Dan Belnavis, Tyla Collier, Patrick Greeley, Nile Scott Hawver, Audree Hedequist, John F. King, Stephen Markarain, Alison McCartan, Michael Mendiola, Carolyn Saxon and Kathy St. George

(Now through February 6, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, Wimberly Theatre, 527 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com or by calling the Box Office at 617-933-8600)

SpeakEasy Stage Company's splendid musical VIOLET is making a joyful noise at the Boston Center for the Arts on Tremont Street. An early work by Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Shrek, Caroline or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie), VIOLET first appeared in a brief run Off-Broadway in 1997. In 2014 it was reworked and reimagined for the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway. It is this second highly acclaimed version, starring a terrific Alison McCartan in the role played by Sutton Foster, that we see here in all its spiritual glory.

VIOLET tells the tale of a determined young woman who believes a televangelist can heal her. Disfigured by an ax at the age of 13 in a horrible wood-chopping accident, Violet (McCartan), now 25 and on her own, is hoping and praying for a miracle. She is traveling cross country on a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, certain that, when the preacher at the end of the line eradicates the facial scar she covers with hair so nervously, she will finally feel beautiful and free.

En route she is befriended by two young soldiers - Flick (Dan Belnavis), a Black sergeant who understands what it's like to be judged by something as simple as skin, and Monty (Nile Scott Hawver), a good-time corporal who initially sees Violet as an easy conquest. As miles pass, affections deepen, and what began as a simple road trip turns into a journey of self-discovery that ends in a way never imagined.

Tesori's music is an inspirational blend of folk, rock, pop and gospel that changes along with the landscape. It hints at the period, circa 1964, and provides motifs for the various characters. "Water in the Well" and "Luck of the Draw" have a rhythmic hillbilly twang to them that harkens back to Violet's Carolina childhood with her father (a gently loving Michael Mendiola). "Anyone Would Do" is a sultry blues ballad that gives a purple heart to the hardened hotel hooker (a delicious Kathy St. George) who yearns for something more than a mere trick during an eventful overnight layover in Memphis. "Let It Sing" is a rousing pop anthem that reveals Flick's own suppressed dreams and desires as he encourages Violet to set her inner beauty and fire free. "Look at Me" is Violet's aching plea to God and her father when she fears the preacher (John F. King) won't be the key to her salvation.

With a heavy emphasis on faith and fortitude, VIOLET could easily morph into a sermon of saccharin platitudes. But pitch-perfect direction by SpeakEasy's artistic director Paul Daigneault and keen performances from the entire cast make each of Tesori's rich notes ring true. McCartan, in particular, gives a fearless performance, contrasting Violet's innate spunk and glowing charisma with a painfully self-conscious vulnerability. Belnavis and Hawver, too, earn strong measures of sympathy and respect, the first with a voice that rattles the rafters and the second with a slightly dangerous bad boy charm that later gives way to something more fragile and earnest.

With VIOLET SpeakEasy Stage has achieved that rarest of alchemies - a perfect confluence of concept and execution that can't be captured and put into a bottle. It continues through February 6 and then escapes into the ether. So experience it while you can and hold it fondly in your memory.

PHOTOS BY GLENN PERRY PHOTOGRAPHY - Alison McCartan as Violet; Michael Mendiola as Father and Alison McCartan; Dan Belnavis as Flick, Alison McCartan and Nile Scott Hawver as Monty

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From This Author Jan Nargi

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