Playwright: Ayad Akhtar. At: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St. Phone: 773-409-4125; $35-$40. Web: www.atcweb.org . Runs through Feb. 26
Playwright: Randall Colburn. At: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe. Phone: 847-242-6000; $45-$65. Web: www.writerstheatre.org . Runs through March 18
People struggling with faith, religion and the messiness of life populate the two current Chicago-area dramas of Ayak Akhtar's Disgraced at American Theater Company and Randall Colburn's Hesperia at Writers' Theatre. While both offer high-impact dramatics based around religious issues and customs, the emotional explosiveness of one turns out to be more satisfying than the personal conflicts explored in the other.
Disgraced focuses on the rising New York Muslim-American corporate lawyer Amir Kapoor ( Usman Ally ) and how his goal of achieving American Dream-style success gets spectacularly derailed practically overnight. Amir has largely turned his back on his faith to get ahead in the United States, but is later torn asunder when a series of professional and personal biases and betrayals come to a heated boil.
Akhtar's very topical world premiere is definitely designed to push buttons and to simultaneously prod audiences intellectually and emotionally to consider their own cultural and religious views in post-9/11 America. While some of Akhtar's character choices and plotting might be a tad too neatly designed for conflict ( particularly with the revelation of infidelity ) , Disgraced certainly allows for great acting moments from director Kimberly Senior's amazing cast. In addition to Ally's powerhouse performance, great work is delivered all around from Lee Stark as Amir's wife, Emily, Alana Arenas as Amir's lawyer colleague, Jory, Benim Foster as her husband, Isaac, and Behzad Dabu as Amir's nephew, Abe ( later Hussein ) .
In Hesperia, Randall Colburn tackles the intersection of born-again Christianity with human sexuality. And with its main characters of two former lovers who used to work in Los Angeles' porn industry returning to their small-town America roots, there's potential for explosive conflict.
However, instead of embracing those high-drama stakes about a religious community shocked by a sexual scandal, Colburn instead makes Hesperia into a more personal play about "sinners" trying to return to lives of goodness and purity and of upstanding Christians trying to cope with their natural sexual urges. It's a valid choice on Colburn's part, but it also makes Hesperia feel like a missed dramatic opportunity ( especially in American entertainment, where sex is often viewed as more damaging than violence ) .
Nonetheless, director Stuart Carden gets well-rounded performances from the cast and prevents the upstanding Christian community members from becoming do-gooder caricatures ( particularly skillful performances in this respect come from Erik Hellman as the pun-filled youth pastor, Trick, Tyler Ross as the newly baptized teenager, Aaron, and Rebecca Butler as Trick's lonely cousin, Daisy ) .
As the former lovers of Ian and Claudia, Nathan Hosner and Kelly O'Sullivan respectively gave fine and intense performances. These two often fill in the gaps of character motivation that Colburn doesn't always provide for these damaged, but ultimately striving people trying to remake their lives.