Theater Review: Powerful ‘Disgraced’ raises issues at Asolo Rep

From left, Lee Stark, Dorien Makhloghi, Bianca LaVerne Jones and Jordan Ben Sobel in Asolo Rep's production of "Disgraced." GARY W. SWEETMAN PHOTO/ASOLO REP

From left, Lee Stark, Dorien Makhloghi, Bianca LaVerne Jones and Jordan Ben Sobel in Asolo Rep’s production of “Disgraced.” GARY W. SWEETMAN PHOTO/ASOLO REP

In a season that has explored racism and intolerance from a variety of powerful angles in everything from “West

Side Story” to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Asolo Repertory Theatre brings new perspectives to the discussion and puts the subject on full boil in a gripping production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced.”

It’s a fascinating and sometimes humiliating look at how we see and present ourselves to the world and the potentially terrifying impact of how we alter our thoughts and actions to fit in and to stand out less. That’s what the central character Amir has done for most of his life. Born in the United States to Pakistani Muslim parents, he has given up his religion and changed his name to better fit in at his Jewish-run law firm where he hopes to be promoted to name partner. But trying to hide who you are 24/7 inevitably leads to tensions and conflicts.

Amir faces those problems at home and at work. His wife, a white artist who has developed an affinity for traditional Islamic art, encourages Amir to help defend his nephew Abe’s Imam defend himself from terrorism related charges. They don’t understand his reluctance to use his experience as a public defender to help a man possibly targeted more out of fear of Islamic terrorists than actual facts.

The play also includes a Jewish art dealer named Isaac who has taken an interest in

Emily’s work, and Isaac’s African-American wife, a colleague of Amir’s and an apparent rival for promotion. When they all come together for what is intended to be a celebratory dinner, the politically and religiously fueled talk turns pleasantries into confrontations. People say things you know they’re not supposed to say (at least in mixed company), let alone think. It’s an explosive scene that gets to the heart of entrenched racism.

Dorien Makhloghi, left, and Lee Stark pl;ay a couple facing some unexpected trouble in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced” at Asolo Rep. GARY W. SWEETMAN PHOTO/ASOLO REP

The harsh realities of Akhtar’s play, which begins with a good amount of humor before it becomes darker and more brutal, is presented in a nicely stylized production staged by Michael Donald Edwards, the theater’s producing artistic director. The production has a strong energy and genuinely believable characters, but as the

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ater Review: Powerful ‘Disgraced’ raises issues at Asolo Rep 4/7/16, 6:5

tensions build toward a major confrontation, a key moment between Amir and Emily, harrowing though it still is, lacks the force it needs.

On Reid Thompson’s set, we get a suggestion of a high-end Manhattan apartment with just a few pieces of furniture placed on an angled wood floor. In the background, we get some startling views in Michael Clark’s projections, which reveal a bustling city turning into images of Islamic-styled mosaics.

Bianca LaVerne Jones plays an attorney and Jordan Ben Sobel is her art dealer husband in Asolo Rep’s production of “Disgraced.” GARY W. SWEETMAN PHOTO/ASOLO REP

Dorien Makhloghi plays Amir with a smart mix of aggressive competitiveness and world-weary resignation that shifts as the story progresses. There’s a

sense of self-entitled cockiness combined with the idea that his success can quickly disappear.

As Emily, Lee Stark is sweet and pleasant at times but without much of a distinctive personality. And she gets overly emotional or weepy for reasons that seem overwrought at certain moments. Jordan Ben Sobel, a third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory student, is strong, mature and biting as Isaac, and Bianca LaVerne Jones as his wife, Jory, has a quick way with a comeback or reaction and a fun, take-no-guff kind of attitude. Nik Sadhnani has a compassionate aura as Abe in his few scenes.Beth Goldenberg capture’s a good sense of the personalities in her costumes, and Jen Schriever’s lighting matches the shifts in tone and tension that keep us engaged and may have you re-evaluating your own view on the world.

THEATER REVIEW “DISGRACED”

By Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Michael Donald Edwards. Reviewed April 1, Asolo Repertory Theatre in the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota. through April 24. 941-351-8000; asolorep.org

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Bianca LaVerne Jones

Apple Pie maker. Sister. Daughter. Lover. Artist. Bubbles. Hard Candy. Text. Scripts. Analysis. Critic. Critical. Compassionate. Empathetic. FUNNY. Peaceful. The Beez Knees. Smiles. ...and Chocolate! Professional Actress. Director. Writer.

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