It’s easy to see why playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Although it’s a compact 90 minutes with no intermission, it is a juggernaut of an evening, raising more issues in a theatrically exciting manner than most plays of twice its length.
That verdict is affirmed by the genuinely thrilling production that opened at the Long Wharf Theatre’s on Wednesday, October 21, and runs through November 8. It packs a literal punch that sends playgoers reeling from the theater as well as pondering the many profound questions and situations that parade across designer Lee Savage’s upscale, parquet-floored, comfortably modern New York apartment set. Congratulations are deservedly extended to Gordon Edelstein, the Long Wharf’s Artistic Director, who has staged this production with extensive attention to detail, exemplified by articulate and precise line readings by his peerless five person cast.
Akhtar, the author of the novel “American Dervish” and the play “The Invisible Hand” which is on next year’s schedule at the Westport Country Playhouse, is working with subject matter is as up to date and contemporary as possible. The playwright himself describes the work as being about how Muslims are viewed in American society today and how they are frequently treated in our post-9/11 world. But as one sits through the play, one realizes that the playwright has deliberately incorporated much more into this work, including the ease with which people inadvertently use language that insults, the superiority and privilege that seeps unnoticed into conversations, and the expectations that people assign to members of many different ethnic groups.
But don’t let the matter of “issues” turn you off to the play. It can be hysterically funny at times, as its characters banter back and forth, husbands and wives pick on each other’s foibles as they deal with everyday mundane situations such as forgetting to bring home a bottle of wine. Even its more dramatic scenes are presented with in a realistic manner that wraps the matters that are on the playwright’s mind in such details as a dinner party that goes wittily at first, then more shockingly awry.
“Disgraced” centers on the American born Amir, a mergers and acquisitions attorney in an upscale Manhattan law firm, who as we learn has changed his last name to more Hindi sounding Kapoor from his Moslem original and who has essentially turned his back on his Moslem faith in order to better assimilate into his corporate environment. His wife Emily, a blonde American artist, has been incorporating more and more Islamic designs and concepts into her work, which has now begun to attract the attention of dealers. The plot takes off after the arrival of Amir’s college-aged nephew Abe, who exhibits all the qualities, behaviors and attitudes of the typical American teen, who nonetheless is concerned about the arrest and treatment of his iman who is only guilty, in Abe’s eyes and in Emily’s as well, of just practicing his religion and not raising funds in support of terrorism as the FBI seems to believe.
Amir feels that he lacks the expertise to become involved in the case, particularly since the iman has an excellent legal team already in place. It turns out that Amir has already met with the iman, who expresses a desire for a Moslem on his team. At the urging of his wife, Amir attends, as a supporter, the iman’s arraignment and gets quoted in a newspaper piece that subtly implies that he is actually a member of the defense team.
As the repercussions from the article impact Amir’s position at his firm, Emily’s paintings have been selected for an exhibition being put together by Isaac, the husband of one of Amir’s fellow lawyers at this firm, Jory. Isaac happens to be Jewish and his wife is African-American, which adds multiple layers to the discussions that emerge during a dinner party hosted by the Kapoor’s to celebrate Emily’s success. The back and forth—much of it quite amusing—demonstrates how easily it is to unthinkingly use an inappropriate word in conversation, how unexpectedly someone can get insulted and much confusion exists about other religions and ethnicities. The most serious reactions come from Amir, who reveals an underlying anger and victimization that he has subsumed expertly for his entire college and professional career, but that has clearly been taking a toll on him. His desire to not get involved in the iman’s case reflects his caution, but out of love for his wife and in response to the challenges posed by his nephew (and perhaps an unconscious pride in his own background), he made the decision to be supportive.
Although all four guests at the dinner party are guilty of some sort of shortcoming, including the withholding of significant secrets and information, it is Amir’s downward spiral that worsens throughout the evening, revealing a man trapped in the identity he has attempted to create for himself, that results in a genuinely gasp-worthy moment, well-staged by Edelstein in full view of the audience, that brings Amir back to the most fundamental beliefs of his now abandoned religion.
Rajesh Bose is wonderfully confident as Amir, revealing an arrogance and assuredness that belies a barely visible undercurrent of self-hatred and fear that seems to hang over him like a cloud. Bose can easily move from a kindly, loving moment to a loud, angry outburst, frequently aimed at his wife, which is filled with unexpressed frustration at barriers that he refuses to acknowledge. Bose’s Amir is a man who clearly loves his wife—whether she is an American trophy is left unresolved—even as he is first seen in his underwear posing for his wife as she attempts to adapt a Velazquez painting of a slave in an elegant suit, which raises some subliminal issues for Amir. His is an appropriately powerful performance that gives the climactic action additional force.
Nicole Lowrance, who recently impressed in the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Bedroom Farce,” does an equally remarkable job as Emily. Unlike the undistinguished Gretchen Moll in the Broadway production of “Disgraced,” Lowrance imbues her character with numerous facets and unobtrusive touches that reveal a depth and complexity in what seems to be a slightly underwritten role. Her support and sympathy for Amir’s nephew and her interest in Islamic art may arise from a genuine willingness to become more involved in her husband’s heritage, even as he has worked to separate himself from it, the extent of which she is ultimately unaware. Thanks to Lowrance’s performance, we can understand how she has misjudged her husband’s true discomfort with this background, a flaw that contributes to Amir’s ultimate fall.
Benim Foster’s Isaac is understated, yet believable, intelligent and enthusiastic as appropriate, though heavily hinting that he has been expected to make certain accommodations in his marriage to Shirine Babb’s Jory, who seems to be the most astute of the foursome, sensitive to the use of language and to the roots of the carelessness that allow this talk to emerge. Mohit Gautam is earnest and even endearing as Abe, who believably becomes more politicized as the play progresses, particularly when the government’s interest in the iman soon seems to extend to him.
Savage’s set fully conveys a sense of New York elegance and tastefulness in an understandably compact space, while Ilona Somogyi’s costume capture the essence of an upwardly mobile intellectual class. Eric Southern has lit the production to showcase the details of the set to their best advantage, while the esteemed fight director Rick Sordelet makes several essential contributions to the evening.
The evening is a triumph in so many ways that one’s mind is left reeling by the brilliance of the play to cover so much territory in such brief a time and by Edelstein’s impeccable staging and the superb performances by the ensemble. In addition to being a character study about Amin, “Disgraced” also cautions about the delicacy of human interactions as diversity, fear, and opportunity intersect more and more in today’s society.
For information and tickets, call the Long Wharf’s Box Office at 203.787.4282 or visit their website at www.longwharf.org.