There’s a lot of serious stuff exposed in Ayad Akhtar’s incendiary Disgraced, currently at Arena Stage. The 90-minute one act asks tough questions, presents thorny dilemmas, uncorks usually well-kept prejudices and provokes an intellectual and emotional reaction from viewers.
But while the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner is certainly explosive within the confines of its story—every performance is sure to draw gasps from the audience at several points—it doesn’t offend with dumb shock value. For all of its sharp-edged thrusts into religion, politics and ethnicity, it will only offend those who worship at the altar of politeness.
As a script, Disgraced has flaws—the contrived connections between the characters and the inevitable tumult of the drama are overly constructed while conversely the opening set-up scenes and the conclusion feel underwritten and rushed—but the theme of cross-cultural identity, and especially what it’s like to be Muslim or perceived as Muslim in the West after 9/11 is engaging, vital and acutely now.
Akhtar presents a multifaceted spectrum of animated, querulous, all-too-human frames of reference on identity, culture and religion in arguments ripped from recent headlines, and bravely probes into areas that cut very deep, such as the legitimacy of Islam, the pride felt from tribal violence and the naïveté of liberal overcompensation.
But don’t be afraid, metropolitan theatergoer, for at its core, the play is compassionate, more an inquiry and plea for understanding than a position statement. In addition to its many critical accolades, and Akhtar being credited with giving Muslim Americans a voice in the theater, Disgraced is the most produced new play on the country’s professional stages this season and an HBO adaptation is underway.
Arena’s opening night production began hesitatingly through the first two scenes, with too many moments of self-aware acting and insecure pacing, before steeling its nerves and taking the plunge for the very potent dinner party scene.
We’re introduced to Amir (Nehal Joshi), a hard-working Pakistani-American corporate lawyer on track to make partner and his loving wife Emily (Ivy Vahanian), an artist with a shot at a Whitney show. Maybe a little too neatly, Amir discredits the Islamic faith he was born into, even taking an Indian name to hide his Muslim background, while Emily is a full-blown Islamophile, basing her new work on Islamic mosaic patterns and arguing for an appreciation of the beauty and wisdom of Islamic tradition and culture.
Events conspire to wreck Amir’s hard-fought gains and perception of who he is when a fleeting moment with an imam under suspicion of assisting jihadi terrorists threatens to put his career advancement at risk. His paranoia and resentment intensifies when his Jewish mentor at the firm stops taking his calls and senior partners begin questioning his background, all leading to the fateful gathering over fennel and anchovy salad in the couple’s gorgeous Upper East Side apartment (designed by Tony Cisek).
closes May 29, 2016
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Amir, Emily and their guests Isaac (Joe Isenberg), an influential Jewish art dealer interested in Emily’s new work—and maybe more—and his wife Jory (Felicia Curry), a black colleague of Amir’s at the firm, begin the evening on eggshells before ideological, professional and sexual fault lines are ruptured and Amir’s life unravels in bathetic rage.
Joshi’s performance of that unraveling is passionate, if too eager at times. In the earlier scenes, Joshi displays the winning charm and self-confidence that got Amir where he is, wrapped in the trappings of success, but also his sensitivity and unease. He’ll always feel like a striver in a world where he believes deep down in his gut he doesn’t really belong.
As the drama unfolds, Amir’s slide into tragedy is affecting as a spectacle of righteous anger and some self-loathing. Amir is in combat with himself and the assumptions he has about the perceptions of others.
Vahanian’s turn as Emily—the unknowing instigator of Amir’s shame and fear—was fine but will need to be more assured as the play runs. Isenberg was the most consistent as the pompous intellectual Isaac, showing both a fine comic rhythm throughout and holding his own in the passive-aggressive jousting with Amir. Felicia Curry was confident and comfortable as Jory, the coolheaded mediator amidst the fracas.
If director Timothy Douglas and company were to work on one thing to patch during the show’s run, it’s got to be the climactic fight scene. On opening night, the execution was way off, with one actor telegraphing his moves too early and not even coming close to making contact with the intended target. The plot point is distressing enough without the extra awkwardness.
Blemishes aside, Disgraced is a compelling experience. It’s smart, without being condescending and is meticulously marbled with relevant articulation, urging honest post-show dialogue.
For this reason, Arena plans to hold post-play discussions after every performance.
Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Featuring Ivy Vahanian, Nehal Joshi, Samip Raval, Joe Isenberg and Felicia Curry. Set Design: Tony Cisek. Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James. Lighting Design: Michael Gilliam. Sound Design and Original Composition: Fitz Patton. Stage Manager: Amber Dickerson. Produced by Arena Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
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