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Review: Each layer of ‘Disgraced’ adds to its complexity

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and purportedly will be the most produced play in regional theaters this season.

Not only that; it received a Broadway revival just a year and a half after it premiered off-Broadway.

It’s not hard to see why the Pulitzer committee awarded the coveted prize to Akhtar’s play, nor why theaters are enthusiastic to produce it: “Disgraced” is as topical as this morning’s front page and sizzles with an ever increasing intensity that does not let up until the last of its 90 minutes expires.

Fusion Theatre is one of the many regional theaters producing “Disgraced” this season; this southwest premiere is being directed by Fusion company member Jacqueline Reid.

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The play examines the rise and fall of a secularized, assimilated, and successful Pakistani-American corporate lawyer (Amir) living in New York with his beautiful blond wife (Emily), an artist inspired to paint her husband after the fashion of Diego Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” a slave of Moorish descent who became a talented artist in his own right and was later freed by Velázquez. A racist remark at a restaurant the evening before is the catalyst for Emily’s contemporary rendition.

The painting metaphorically encapsulates Amir’s situation perfectly, for no matter how “free” Amir is, no matter how hard he works nor the level of success he achieves, he will continue to be looked at with supercilious, racist distrust, especially in post-9/11 America.

The play reaches its explosive climax in the third scene when a married couple, Isaac and Jory, arrive for dinner to celebrate Emily’s impending exhibition at the Whitney Museum, a show being arranged by Isaac, a Jewish art dealer whose interest in Emily extends beyond her artistic ability.

Jory is an African-American lawyer employed at the same firm as Amir. The potential for high-stakes drama is fully exploited by the playwright, as the aborted multi-ethnic dinner party ends in a shocking act of violence.

The success of Akhtar’s intellectually riveting and emotionally charged play depends largely on the actor playing Amir. This is a man who has done everything he can to distance himself from his ethnic and religious roots, yet cannot escape an ambivalent mix of self-loathing and vicarious pride in Muslim aggression.

As polite dinner conversation turns to heated argument the suppressed rage and wounded dignity should explode volcanically.

Unfortunately, John San Nicolas lacks the emotional depths to convey a sense of Amir’s humiliation and fury, which should come from deep within and shock not only his dinner companions but the theater audience as well into an awakened sense of the abyss of this man’s inner turmoil and identity confusion.

The rest of the cast fares better. Celia Schaefer as Emily traverses the emotional rollercoaster of the part with easy grace while Angela Littleton is quite good as Jory.

Gregory Wagrowski is excellent as the haughty, amorous art dealer.

There is a fifth character in the play, Amir’s nephew, Abe/Hussein, a practicing Muslim who we learn is interrogated by the FBI – who keep a dossier on him even though he has no connection with Islamic terrorism.

The part adds resonance to the theme and another layer of complexity to the plot, and is finely played by Samuel Shoemaker-Trejo.

The production is beautifully designed by Richard K. Hogle, Laurie Thomas, and Brent Stevens. “Disgraced” is playing at The Cell through Friday, Sept. 25 and in Santa Fe on Saturday, Sept. 26. Go to fusionnm.org or call 505-766-9412 for tickets and additional information.

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