BWW Review: CVRep's DISGRACED is Expertly Presented and Topical

(L-R) Elizabeth Saydah (Emily), Arash Mokhtar
(her husband, Amir), and
Kamran Abbassian (their nephew, Abe)

Coachella Valley Repertory's (CVRep's) production of Ayad Akhtar's DISGRACED, is expertly performed, timely, and searing and will almost definitely leave a lasting impression on theatregoers.

DISGRACED examines identity and prejudice. It asks such questions as whether people can throw out the bath water of their birth cultures without also throwing out the baby. Must people reject their identity to fit in with the majority? Do members of the majority lump all members of a particular minority together? What about the reverse? What happens when an outsider reveres a minority culture but fails to acknowledge its weaknesses? Do we instinctively side with "our people" even when someone in "our" group does something unforgiveable? Because of the sensitivity of these and other questions that DISGRACED raises, founding artistic director Ron Celona has arranged to hold a discussion between the performers and audience members after every show.

(L-R) Emily, Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson), Amir, and
Jory's husband Isaac (Joel Polis) toast the art show.

Amir (Arash Mokhtar) is a hard-nosed attorney who has rejected his Muslim background and who pretends to be from India rather than Pakistan, because of Islam's teachings about women and other beliefs outmoded in Western societies. His majority culture American wife, Emily (Elizabeth Saydah), an artist, believes that there is much to be admired religiously and artistically in Islam, and is determined to mine its depths. Amir's nephew, Abe (Kamran Abbassian), has rejected Islam even more thoroughly than his uncle has, until Abe becomes radicalized. Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson) is a young, black fellow associate in the same law firm as Amir. Her husband, Isaac (Joel Polis), who is Jewish, is putting on an art exhibit and is interested in showing some of Emily's Islam-inspired work. Everything begins to fall apart when Abe hears about an imam, who may or may not be a radical, and who has spent several months in jail awaiting trial on a terrorism charge, who asks to speak to a Muslim lawyer. Emily convinces Amir to become involved. Amir reluctantly agrees to attend a hearing as an observer, a circumstance which offends the mostly Jewish partners in Amir's firm. At a dinner party with Jory and Isaac, Amir's career pressures and the results of Emily's recent trip to London serve as catalysts for revelations about ethnicity and religion that shock the others.

Guest director JoAnne Gordon brings out the best in each of the actors; it is easy to forget that these are performances. The only choice with which I partially disagree is Mr. Mokhtar's decision to play Amir as completely unapproachable and self-righteous - when the American dream explodes in his face, I found it difficult to feel as much sympathy as I would have if he had portrayed his character as less of a soulless prig. His performance, like those of the other actors, is top-notch, but I just didn't like Amir as a person; perhaps that is what Mr. Mokhtar and Ms. Gordon intended.

Feelings get raw

In contrast to the performances, the writing has some flaws, although not enough to diminish the the play's electric effect. The most serious flaw, in my view, is showing only the resentment of the ethnic characters towards the majority, and neglecting the almost automatic horror that so many people feel when they discover that a member of their ethnic group or religion has done something illegal, scandalous, or immoral. (I'm Jewish, so for me, Ivan Boesky, Scooter Libby, and Monica Lewinsky, among others, triggered my reaction, but I doubt that this phenomenon is unique to Jewish people). Abe, who would have been very young in 2001, admits that, on one level the 9/11 attack made him happy because it meant that the western world could no longer ignore the Muslim world. Yet, none of the four ethnic characters ever mentions asking themselves, "Why did it have to be one of us?" about a crime or scandal.

CVRep has a well-earned reputation for brilliant technical achievements in its productions. DISGRACED is no different. Jimmy Cuomo's amazing set design (assisted by Doug Morris) tells us about the characters before any of them appear onstage. There is a significant amount of Islamic art, but we know that the apartment's inhabitants are not religious, because of the well-stocked bar. The simple, but beautiful chandelier and the modern furniture testify to the occupants' sophistication. The pattern in the area rugs keep the rooms from being too stark.

Tension and secrets

DISGRACED was written several years ago, but it may even be more relevant today when, as a nation, we are confronting questions such as whether we in the West can understand Islam through a literal reading of the Quran, whether we should allow refugees in from Syria, whether membership in a mainstream religion should disqualify people from visiting the United States, and whether people who hold different views about equality from a majority of Americans should be barred from immigration.

DISGRACED is a must-see for those everywhere on the political spectrum. While the script is not perfect, CVRep's presentation is top-notch. However, no one should attend the production for entertainment. They'd not only leave depressed and disappointed, but, more importantly, would miss out on the play's purpose - to force us to look inward at our own views about "the other," and if we are "the other," to look at our views about the majority. Some of these questions are, at the very least, uncomfortable, and others are devastating. Plan to stay for the Q&A, and then go home and read or watch something frothy to lighten the mood.

The rest of the artistic staff and production crew consists of Moira Wilkie Whitaker (stage manager/lighting designer); Aalsa Lee (costume designer); Cricket S. Myers (sound designer); Karen Goodwin (assistant stage manager/sound tech); Lynda Shaeps (hair and makeup); Edgar Landa (fight choreographer); Bridget Duffy and Gerry High (paintings); Greg Pard and Guy Wonder (front door creation); and Jim Cox (production photos).

DISGRACED will run through April 2, 2017. CVRep's 2016-17 runs are now four weeks long instead of three, and include some Tuesday evening performances and an additional Saturday matinee. Evening shows start at 7:30 pm, and matinees (Sat. & Sun.) start at 2:00 pm. Individual ticket prices are $43 for previews, $58 for opening night, and $48 for all other performances.

CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69-930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets for can be purchased by telephone at 760-296-2966; online at www.cvrep.org/tickets/; or in person at the box office. Box office hours are Mon-Fri 10:30-2:30 and 2 hours prior to each performance. For general information, go to www.cvrep.org.

This season's last offering is LATER LIFE, by A.R. Gurney, April 26-May 21, 2017.
Comically, and sometimes painfully, two people rediscover each other and themselves later in life while a bevy of free-spirited people rally behind them and remind them of the infinite possibilities that life holds.

CVRep, a 501(c)(3) organization, is the only theatre in the Coachella Valley that has Small Professional Theatre status with Actors' Equity. As well as presenting its main stage productions, CVRep operates a conservatory and a children's program. CVRep is currently raising funds through a $6-million capital campaign to purchase the IMAX theater in Cathedral City, at the corner of Route 111 and Cathedral Canyon Boulevard, and to construct a 200-seat, modern theatrical venue on the site.

To contribute to the capital campaign, contact:
Andrea Spirtos, CFRE, Vice President of Development
(760) 296-2966 ext 107
aspirtos@cvrep.org

To contribute for CVRep's annual operations, contact:
Barbara Wolser, Director of Development
(760) 296-2966 ext 103
barbara@cvrep.org


PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Cox




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