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'Disgraced' jars the intellect, senses at Road Less Traveled

Amir Kapoor believes he is on a lifelong journey away from his faith. But he has no idea the path he has chosen is a circle.

In an effort to distance himself from the traditions of his Islamic background, Kapoor has changed his name and social security number. He has married outside his culture and religion against the wishes of his family. And, as another character in Ayad Akhtar's jarring play "Disgraced" notes, he has "adorned himself in the splendors" of American capitalism.

But as we soon learn in this sharp-edged production directed by John Hurley in the Road Less Traveled Theatre, $600 dress shirts can't exempt Kapoor from the crippling realities of American prejudice. In Akhtar's play, the morally bankrupt cult of American capitalism faces off against the tribal roots and tendencies of Islam.

Despite attempts from representatives of each side to understand the other, neither comes out looking good.

What does look good is this clean and clear production, which unfolds in one breathless act on Lynne Koscielniak's stunning set of the Kapoors' stylish apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, beautifully lit by John Rickus.

The space has everything necessary to establish the theme and tone of the play, including a remote-controlled gas fireplace filled with delicate wisps of blown glass, above which an ethereally lit painting incorporating ancient Islamic patterns holds a place of honor. A curtain of multicolored panels provides a backdrop hinting at the discordance and diversity of the city that lies outside this artificial bastion of elite culture.

Amir, a high-powered attorney with high-thread-count clothes, has spent much of his life suppressing his Muslim background in an attempt to get ahead. In Afrim Gjonbalaj's strong if slightly tentative performance, we watch as Amir's belief that he can escape the obligations and limitations of his faith crumbles bit by bit.

Amir's wife, Emily (Kristen Tripp Kelley, brilliant as usual), is a gifted artist committed to promoting the beauty and brilliance of ancient Islamic culture and art. She convinces her husband to testify in favor of a local imam accused of terrorist ties. To please her, he reluctantly agrees. This act forces him to re-engage with the faith he has tried so hard to escape, and the unjust repercussions a public embrace of that faith can bring in a country increasingly hostile to Islam.

Muslim identity in America being explored on stage at Road Less Traveled

The drama reaches a head during an ill-fated dinner party, where Amir and Emily's personal struggles meet those of the art curator Isaac (the excellent Matt Witten) and his wife, Amir's co-worker Jory (Candace Whitfield, at perfect ease in the role). Fireworks ensue.

Akhtar's script is not limited to a critique of blind faith in god or money, but also extends to an excoriation of naiveté in its various manifestations. As a lapsed Muslim, Amir is naive about his ability to escape a deeply fearful and ignorant American culture. As an Islamophile, Emily is naive about some of the more troubling aspects of the Koran. And Isaac, who embodies the faux-intellectual phoniness and confidence of so many self-anointed cultural gatekeepers, is naive about almost everything.

Perhaps the most straightforward character  is Amir's nephew Abe (Mohammed Farraj), a walking embodiment of the struggle so many Muslim Americans face as they try to participate in a culture that does not accept them.

"You want something from these people you will never get," Abe tells his uncle in one of the play's many shocking scenes. "They disgraced us. And then they pretend they don't understand the rage we've got?"

This play is an important gesture toward understanding, with equal weight from each direction and full acknowledgement of the flaws and failings of each side of the debate over Islam's place in American culture. For anyone interested in an honest look at this struggle, it is essential viewing.

Theater Review

"Disgraced"

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Through March 31 in the Road Less Traveled Theatre, 500 Pearl St. Tickets are $5 to $35. Call 629-3069 or visit roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

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