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Redefine and Resurrect

One play in town breaks new ground, while another explores minor roles in a classic

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Disgraced in name alone.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, the defining moment of the 21st Century will have happened just months into its birth. September 11, 2001 changed everything. Or maybe it just woke many of us up to things that had been changing all along, as well as making us take a look at some things that have never changed.

Ayad Akhtar's play Disgraced, now being given disturbing life at Arizona Theatre Company, allows us to be present with some folks in New York City 10 years after the toppling of the Twin Towers, in a story that challenges us to consider the gnarly issues of boundaries, of belonging, and of self-betrayal. The play won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

Amir (Elijah Alexander) is a high-flying corporate lawyer, wearing $600 shirts on his back and a very blond WASP-ish wife on his arm. Although American born, he has ostensibly abandoned his Islamic roots, having changed his name, his social security number and telling his law firm bosses that his parents were Indian, although they were Pakistani. Wife Emily (Allison Jean White) is a painter who has become interested in the Middle Eastern themes and styles in her work and is going to be given a showing at the Whitney, largely based on the recommendations of Isaac (Richard Baird) who represents her, and, who, we find out at dinner, is Jewish. He is married to Jory (Nicole Lewis) a black woman who works with Amir at the law firm where the partners are Jewish. The four have been friends for years.

If you're thinking this is a dinner party sitting on a cache of explosives with the clock ticking, you would be right. And although this may seem a too-easy contrivance, Akmar actually builds the inevitable explosion quite plausibly, preparing us for it with a subplot involving Amir's nephew (Vandit Bhatt) who comes to him asking for his help in defending an imam accused of helping terrorists. Amir at first refuses—he knows nothing about that kind of law, being a mergers and acquisitions guy. What if his name becomes associated with the situation? It could challenge how he has so meticulously buried his Muslim roots and jeopardize his professional aspirations. And it does—fueling the stunningly revealing and heartbreaking truth of how helplessly deep our tribal roots reach and how the dangerous attempt to deny who we are doesn't dissipate the rules we learned, but drives them underground, where they gather the force to do great harm.

This all happens in polite company, between urbane and educated friends. Under David Ira Goldstein's direction, the actors rarely hit a false note. John Ezell's set is a perfect minimalist-modernist background against which this story rattles our sensibilities. It's a timely piece, without being preachy or blaming. Rather, it allows the immediacy of the passions of these four friends wash over us like a tsunami. And it is a dramatic reminder that, as one character states, "this is not a neutral world."

NO SMALL PARTS

We are a lot like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor players in Shakespeare's Hamlet, who inspired English playwright Tom Stoppard to probe their minor roles in his own play called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, onstage now at the Rogue Theatre.

We're pretty sure we have some purpose, although we're not really sure what it is. But we do feel that whatever that purpose is, we are minor players in a very complicated story. There seem to be laws which govern our lives—the law of averages, probability and diminishing returns—but they can shift and leave us feeling even less sure of ourselves and how to find our way. Sometimes we feel abandoned, and we can't figure out "which way the wind is blowing." We don't know if our lives are determined by chance or fate. And then there's death and eternity to consider, "the worst of both worlds."

Stoppard will surely be considered one of the best playwrights of the late 20th century. He is able to ask big questions with impressive eloquence in unique settings, and then eloquently fails to answer them. He always finds humor in life's often confusing, even absurd, plots. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a prime example.

This play is being performed in repertory with Hamlet, which I reviewed last week. That is a well-produced show, and Stoppard's play has been given a good life as well. Cynthia Meier directed both. I'm glad I saw Hamlet first, because it gives an immediate context for what Stoppard has grabbed and had his way with. Of course, we first meet Rosencrantz (Patty Gallagher) and Guildenstern (Ryan Parker Knox) in Hamlet, and some of the characters which populate Hamlet are revisited here. It's interesting to see that Hamlet's tragedy is unfolding from a very different perspective than R & G's.

Knox and Gallagher as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, respectively—or is it the other way around?—certainly have the wherewithal to wrestle with Stoppard and captivate us as they do so. (The question of who is who and which is which is a theme running throughout, and demonstrates another way we and they are alike. At our most basic, we really are ultimately indistinguishable from each other.)

The plot points of R & G, if you can call them that, arise from the plots and subplots of Hamlet. The troupe of players in Hamlet, which provides a chance to see if Claudius shows guilt when he views their dumb show, plays a much bigger role here—they are a small part of the Hamlet saga like R & G. This aspect of Rogue's production lacks the clarity necessary to plumb the depths of what Stoppard was intending. It's a tough aspect of the writing, and it leaves the audience almost as confused as it leaves poor R & G.

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