“Disgraced" -- Long Wharf Theatre

By Brooks Appelbaum

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced gives us a delicious surprise in its opening stage picture, and this surprise is one of many, though most of them are far more disturbing. Disgraced is a dark story with subtle and masterfully placed echoes of Othello in its plot and characters. Playing through November 8th at the Long Wharf Theatre, in association with the Huntington Theatre, this Pulitzer-prize winning drama, under the brilliant direction of Gordon Edelstein, challenges audience members to hear ideas about race and religion that most would prefer to regard as literally unspeakable.

Amir (the remarkable Rajesh Bose) has done everything possible to distance himself from his Muslim upbringing and ally himself with America in every way possible. He has changed his last name from Abdullah to Kapoor in an attempt to appear Indian rather than Pakistani; he works as a corporate lawyer in a successful firm where he is on the cusp of making partner; and he has married Emily: Caucasian, blond, porcelain-skinned, and a serious, intellectually-minded artist (the touchingly fragile Nicole Lowrance). His sumptuously appointed home (designed gorgeously by Lee Savage), lets us know that socially and materially, Amir has arrived at the pinnacle of success as defined by his chosen circle.

Two events act as the play’s inciting incidents. First, we learn that Emily’s Islamic-influenced paintings are being considered for a tony New York gallery exhibit; if her work is accepted, her career will soar. Second, Amir’s teenage nephew (beautifully played by Mohit Gautam), who has changed his name from Hussein to Abe but who still feels loyal to aspects of his Muslim background, enters the scene with disturbing news and a request. An imam known to Abe and his family has been arrested on the charge of funding terrorist groups. Abe is certain that the imam would want a Muslim lawyer to support him. Abe’s pleas and Emily’s dedication to justice push Amir, against his will, to attend the imam’s hearing. With this decision, the controversy he has feared begins.

A celebratory dinner party introduces us to the other figures in Disgraced: Isaac, the Jewish art dealer who has become enamored of Emily’s work (the terrific Benim Foster), and Jory, his confident African-American wife, who is also Amir’s colleague (the charismatic Shirine Babb). Certainly, each of these characters stands in for his or her culture to some extent, and in lesser hands, this gathering could feel contrived. However, the dinner party drama has become a sub-genre of modern American drama, and between Akhtar’s deeply thoughtful writing and Edelstein’s masterful direction, one believes every moment as the party and the rest of the play inexorably move to a stunning conclusion.

To speak of the performances is almost to deny the powerful reality that each actor brings to his or her role. And every other aspect of this piece contributes to this reality. In addition to Savage’s remarkable set, the costume design, by Ilona Somogyi, adds layers of complexity to Emily, as well as speaking visually for everyone onstage. The lighting design, by Eric Southern, and the sound design, by David Van Tieghem, both enhance the play’s ominous undercurrents.

Disgraced is one of Long Wharf’s strongest offerings in the past several years. I look forward to seeing more productions that match its excellence.

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