Imagine the worst dinner party you could attend. Not the worst for company (everyone here is erudite and cosmopolitan), nor the worst for purpose (a celebration of achievement), nor the worst for food and drink (scotch, an adorable fennel salad and pork tenderloin in the oven). No, the worst because everyone says things they shouldn’t, every further comment inflames the already raw situations, and potentially devastating secrets are spilled.
That worst makes for one of the best directed and most phenomenally popular plays this season: Disgraced, produced by NextStop and directed by Thembi Duncan.
The popularity comes as no surprise: Pulitzer-prize winner Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar has been in the top 2 most produced plays in regional theaters two years running. This five-hander living room drama chronicles the disgrace of high-powered lawyer and Muslim apostate Amir Kapur in the eyes of his spouse, his firm, and his family. Think Bad Jews with broader appeal, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? confronting 21st century social issues.
But the devil is in the details for conversational dramas driven by characters who subvert expectations. Duncan’s direction delivers by carefully crafting moments of intensity (like the unexpected delivery of a slur or sudden physical confrontation) to keep them in character of well-meaning people who do horrible things to one another.
But she also makes the ordinary conversational lead-up to these moments of intensity extraordinary by finding small signals from the playwright (like mentioning the name of an antagonistic boss or the location of an indiscretion) and ensuring they affect the characters and conversations. These moments aren’t pointed to in Akhtar’s script, but Duncan has sussed them out with excellent instincts and thorough analysis. Pencil in a provisional Helen Hayes nomination for her if you’re the kind of theater-goer who makes such predictions.
The effect those moments of build and release create is what a composer would call poco a poco crescendo: a piece of music that gets louder by almost imperceptible degrees. In his introduction, Akhtar notes the play with a different musical term, allegro con brio (light but bold). Duncan simultaneously achieves this mode through relentless pacing that makes the 90 minutes of Disgraced flow even faster than expected.
In a play less realistic than Disgraced, one would expect design elements to decorate a fast-paced drama and add some elements of aesthetic bling. While that’s hard to do in an apartment drama set in today’s Manhattan, this production has some touches that feed the senses, especially in Kristina Martin’s costumes. Amir’s artist wife Emily runs through a contemporary artsy trifecta of romper, jumpsuit, and tunic over pants in delightfully wild designs. Martin tells a great story through Amir’s own shirts as well. European in origin and incredibly expensive, what at first seems like a natty finish is slowly revealed to be an uncomfortable fit, just as the audience discovers Amir’s discomfort in his own world. As Amir’s life crumbles, so do his expensive shirts, not in a screamingly obvious distressed way, but still with a storytelling clarity that reveals smart design.
Details like those make for a fun (if sometimes nerve-wracking) night of theater, and a whole lot of juicy bits for this team to sink their teeth into. Boldly, Nextstop has brought in an entire cast (and director) who have never worked at this theater before. The risk has mostly paid dividends as the creative team shines with talent that should return to this Herndon theater.
closes October 1, 2017
Details and tickets
Journeyman leading actor Jesse Bhamrah makes not only his NextStop debut, but also his DC area debut. In Disgraced, his natural presence easily holds the audience’s attention as Amir, even though he is far too young for the part. His reactive line reads and confidence are winning though. He never carries an affectation for elements of Amir that he could not convince the audience of; he just jumps right in and wraps the room in his storytelling. Don’t be surprised if you see Bhamrah’s name again on DC stages, especially as our theaters have finally begun to produce more plays with roles for South Asian actors.
Amir’s foils in the play are composed of local talent that mostly shines. Expect to see Jenna Rossman, who plays Emily, around in similar living room/kitchen sink dramas. In Disgraced, she essentially puts on a 90 minute masterclass in the anxious biting subtext that is industry standard for plays like this. As one of Emily’s artistic patrons, Jordan Friend as Jewish gallery boss Isaac embodies pompous hateability through an almost Orson Welles-like impression. But to be fair, none of these characters leave this play being unhated, by the audience or by themselves.
Emotionally complex and well executed, Disgraced may represent a new direction for NextStop, who are constantly caught in the balance of remaining relevant in the most distant orbit of DC theater and appealing to their local Herndon audience. This play seems like a great act in that routine: popularity that can bring in the locals plus sharp execution that stands out in the DC tumult. If this is a new direction, they should keep on the track because Disgraced looks graceful on their stage.
Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Thembi Duncan. Featuring Jesse Bhamrah, Nahm Darr, Jordan Friend, Chaela Phillips, and Jenna Rossman. Lighting Design by John D. Alexander . Sound Design by Kevin Lee Alexander . Set Design by Jack Golden . Costume Design by Kristina Martin . Fight Choreography by Kristen Pilgrim . Stage Management by Keta Newborn . Produced by NextStop Theatre Company. Reviewed by Alan Katz.