The Many Facets of Disgrace

By Geary Danihy

Some plays move at a leisurely pace, some double-back on themselves, and some never really go anywhere, but Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is a juggernaut. The 2013 Pultitzer Prize winner, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, establishes its themes early, ratchets up the tension, rushes towards a climax that, although anticipated, is still visceral in its impact, and ends with a satisfying denouement that leaves the audience with questions, but one of the drama’s points is that there are questions that truly cannot be answered by the head…only by the heart.

What we have here in this extremely well-written drama is the actualization of two cultures staring at each other, divided by an abyss that has existed for centuries, justifiably fearful and suspicious, incapable of speaking to each other on terms that have not been sullied by prejudice, violence and bloodshed.

One of these cultures is Islam, personified by Amir (Rajesh Bose), a New York City mergers and acquisitions lawyer and self-professed apostate who has changed his name so that he can “pass” as Indian rather than Pakistani, and his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam), who has changed his name from Hussein in order to assimilate. The other culture is that of the West, specifically America in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a multi-cultural melange represented by Amir’s artist wife, Emily (Nicole Lowrance), her art dealer friend, Isaac (Benim Foster), who is Jewish, and his wife, Jory (Shirine Babb) who is black, a lawyer, and Amir’s colleague. Yes, it sounds contrived, but it works, and it works on many levels.

Juan de Pareja

Juan de Pareja. Velasquez. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The play’s controlling image is a painting by Velasquez of Juan de Pareja, a “Morisco” (a person of mixed heritage, often a Muslim convert to Catholicism) born into slavery, whom Velasquez “inherited” and, after becoming his assistant, freed. It is this painting that has inspired Emily, who is fascinated by the traditions and spirituality of Islamic art, to paint a portrait of her husband after a minor racist confrontation in a restaurant. Amir is uneasy about her motivation and the implications of Velasquez’s painting. He had, reluctantly, and at his wife’s request, visited an Imam who had been arrested for collecting funds that he just might be funneling to terrorist organizations, but Amir wants no part in the prelate’s defense. However, he has been quoted in a newspaper and his firm has been mentioned. It is this publicity that, he fears, may lead to his disgrace, defined in terms of the play as being labeled a Muslim, which, of course, opens up the possibility of being a terrorist.

Most of the play’s rising action, and its climax, can be found in the dinner that Amir and Emily host for their guests, Isaac and Jory. What begins with polite conversation soon escalates into heated discussions about racism, Orientalism, the nature of the Islamic faith and a person’s inability to escape or eschew his or her heritage and upbringing.

This is a play about the clash of faiths and ideas, but it is neither didactic nor moralistic, because it really is about people, about their needs, desires, fears and failings. Bose, as Amir, creates a compelling picture of a conflicted soul, a man who has turned away from his heritage yet cannot, in his heart, deny what he was brought up to believe. It’s a stellar performance.

The rest of the cast is equally strong. Lowrance, Gautman, Foster and Babb all have their moments in the dramatic sun as they respond to and interact with Amir’s character. Think of a poker game in which each player opts to stay in, tossing another chip or two into the pot until the stakes are high, perhaps higher than anyone had wished for, hands are called and everyone’s cards are laid on the table...and nobody wins.

The set by Lee Savage artfully depicts an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, although the recessed kitchen upstage left and the entrance hallway stage right may present some problems for those sitting extreme house left or right – the actors can disappear. As for the lighting designed by Eric Southern, it’s interesting that (and this may have also been a directorial decision) there are no true blackouts for the scene changes -- interesting because, especially in the final scene change, the actions of the crew as the apartment is stripped visually leads into and increases the emotional level of the final scene. And kudos to fight director Rick Sordelet, for when the violence finally explodes you believe it and react to it. It doesn’t look like any punches are being pulled.

Staged in conjunction with the Huntington Theatre Company, Disgraced is engaging, thought-provoking theater that demands you pay attention from the opening scene. A stellar cast and perceptive direction make this an evening of theater you don’t want to miss and will not soon forget.

Disgraced runs through Nov. 8. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

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