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Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced” visits UNLV, Cockroach theaters

Updated March 30, 2017 - 4:11 pm

Heavy themes with a light touch.

It’s a challenge, but one that helps make “Disgraced” such a taut — and topical — theatrical experience.

Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner — which opens Friday at UNLV’s Black Box Theatre for two weekends, then moves to downtown’s Art Square Theatre for two more — qualifies as “such an important play,” says Clarence Gilyard, who’s directing the work for Nevada Conservatory Theatre, UNLV’s professional theater training program.

In part, Gilyard attributes the play’s impact to its explorations of “race, politics, gender, society, faith, marriage” and more.

“Outside of that, it’s a great evening in the theater,” Gilyard continues. “That’s hard to do, hard to create.”

“This play is going to go home with you, sleep with you,” adds co-director Douglas Hill. “You can’t escape from it. You can’t get it all sorted out and neatly put away.”

Not with “Disgraced’s” contradictory characters, who gather for a dinner party where the conversation goes from convivial to incendiary as the evening progresses. (Or, more accurately, degenerates.)

The hosts: Amir (played by Los Angeles-based Equity actor Anil Margsahayam) and Emily (Alexandra Ralph). He’s a rising corporate attorney of Pakistani descent — assimilated, secular and anti-Muslim in his attitudes. She’s an artist who uses Islamic imagery in her work. And did we mention she’s a WASP?

On the guest list: lawyer Jory (Alexis Hudson), Amir’s colleague, who’s African-American and married to Isaac (Brandon Dawson), who’s Jewish — and a curator at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

Rounding out “Disgraced’s” players: Abe (Jacob Samir Sidhom), Amir’s nephew. He may have changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen to make life in America a bit easier, but he maintains more traditional Islamic beliefs.

“They are really complex, messy people,” Gilyard says of “Disgraced’s” characters, noting it’s one of the reasons “actors love this play.” (He should know; in addition to teaching acting at UNLV, Gilyard’s still a working actor, with credits ranging from “Die Hard” to “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He recently returned from a Georgia location shoot that reunited him with “Die Hard” co-star Bonnie Bedelia.)

Margsahayam, this “Disgraced’s” Amir, cites the play’s seemingly contradictory demands: exploring serious themes in a way that’s “still buoyant,” with “somewhat of a situational comedy” feel.

That balancing act takes place as “Disgraced” forces audiences to confront assumptions about “a person, a character, a culture and how we make judgments about what that is,” NCT artistic director Christopher Edwards says.

And while the play’s characters demonstrate how truly disgraceful they can be, “those ideas get flipped on their head,” he adds, prompting each audience member to ponder “what you thought you knew — and what you’ve just discovered.”

Read more from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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