Disgraced -- Engrossing Multi-layered Drama

By Amy J. Barry

The gray areas of ethnicity, race, culture, class, what it means to be an American citizen and how one’s heritage defines one’s very being, no matter how much one tries to deny it, are the powerful themes explored in Disgraced, a modern-day drama by Ayad Akhtar.

On stage at Long Wharf Theater, directed by Long Wharf’s artistic director Gordon Edelstein, and produced with the Huntington Theatre Company, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning 90-minute, one-act play premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2012. And this is when the action—or more accurately interaction—all takes place, between five people in an upscale New York City apartment.

The central characters are Amir (Rajesh Bose), an American-born, Muslim-raised corporate lawyer in mergers and acquisitions on his way toward making partner. Amir’s wife Emily (Nicole Lowrance) is a the quintessential thin blonde WASP—an artist whose paintings are focused on Islamic themes, one of which is about to be accepted into a highbrow New York gallery exhibition. Jory (Shirine Babb), a strong-minded African American woman, is Amir’s colleague at the law firm and Isaac (Benim Foster) is a Jewish art dealer promoting Emily’s work.

The actions of Amir’s assimilated teenage nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam), born Hussein Malik, drives the plot. Abe becomes upset about the arrest of a local imam accused of financing terrorist groups, whom he believes is innocent. He persuades his extremely reluctant uncle, with added pressure from Emily, to get involved in the controversial case. Although Amir only “unofficially” appears in court in support of the imam, not to represent him, Amir gets mentioned in a New York Times article. His law firm’s anti-Muslim sentiments are ignited and Amir’s carefully constructed world begins to unravel. His dream of making partner dissolves.

The case becomes fodder for a loaded conversation when Amir and Emily invite Jory and Isaac over for dinner, which starts out pleasantly enough and degrades as the night goes on and “swords” are drawn.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar treads a fine line when he selects one of each New York “type” to deliver his sociopolitical message about Judeo-Christian/Islamic identity.

Are these fully formed characters we can connect with or are they contrived? Are their relationships with one another too conveniently and coincidentally set up as a voice piece for Akhtar?

Yes and no. Putting this diverse group of Gen X-ers in the same room talking about such hot topics as the Quran and the Talmud, the Taliban, and post 9-11 racial profiling, religious faith and its hypocrisies, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is refreshingly politically incorrect. The characters say what they believe without editing, they say things a lot of us may be thinking but would never verbalize. They go into complex and even dangerous areas as tensions mount, and the effect under Edelstein’s suspense-building direction is both riveting and rather uncomfortable -- as thought-provoking theater should be.

On the other hand, there are some things that don’t quite ring true.

Emily is a case in point. Why is she so passionate about Islamic art and traditions? We never learn about her past, what her own familial roots are -- and why she chose to marry a man who has discarded the very culture of which she is so enamored. Lowrance does her best to embody Emily, but it’s a challenge, since it’s not very clear how the playwright envisions her character.

And does throwing adultery and domestic violence into an already complicated mix add too many elements and take the focus off the play’s central theme?

Babb and Foster make a believable interracial couple. Babb depicts Jory as an accomplished, lively and intelligent woman on a clear career path. Foster captures the nuance of Isaac’s conflicted and self-centered character.

Bose has the most complex and interesting role to work with and he exquisitely envelops Amir’s contradictions and anguish as he slowly descends into a hell created by circumstances, bigotry, and his own inability to accept who he is and where he came from.

The final scene could be better developed. It’s intense and shocking, but devoid of subtlety and wraps up too quickly.

Set designer Lee Savage’s perfectly composed and appointed New York apartment living room/kitchen, right out of the latest, trendiest interior design magazine, captures the climbing-the- socioeconomic-ladder mentality of its inhabitants, as does sound designer David Van Tieghem’s hip music score between scenes.

Despite some weaknesses, Disgraced has many strengths and at the very least provides food for important thought.

Disgraced is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven, through Nov. 8. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.


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