Disgraced is a play that pushes people’s buttons. Almost every character says something that is guaranteed to outrage somebody. But when you push too many buttons, a show can feel mechanical – and that’s true of Disgraced. Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is fascinating and enlightening in its examination of Muslim Americans (an under-dramatized group if ever there was one) and their struggles in the face of open hostility in 21st Century America. But to me, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production felt overly calculated, brimming with insults but lacking in insight.
Disgraced takes place in the posh New York apartment of Amir, a rising and ruthless young corporate attorney who has turned his back on the Muslim faith he was raised in, and his blonde wife Emily, a painter who finds inspiration for her work in traditional Muslim aesthetics. Emily’s fascination with the Muslim world makes Amir uncomfortable, as it’s a world he can no longer be openly associated with if he wishes to become a partner at his firm. Amir’s ambition begins to unravel when, under pressure from his wife and his eager-to-assimilate nephew, he takes an interest in the case of a local imam who may have been unfairly prosecuted in a terrorism case.
Pretty soon Amir’s connection to this controversial figure raises the ire of everyone – his boss, his African-American co-worker Jory, and Jory’s Jewish husband Isaac, an art dealer who is promoting Emily’s work. When Jory and Isaac come over to the apartment for dinner, things get ugly, as the conversation turns to religion, politics, culture and identity. Soon these friends realize just how wide the gulf between them is.
Disgraced is an exceedingly smart play. Akhtar shows his commanding knowledge of art, culture, and current events. When it drops those heady subjects, the dialogue loosens up, and Disgraced can seem quite pleasurable and even funny. But for most of the night, the lines seem provocative merely for the sake of being provocative. Outrageous statements – like a smug Isaac’s declaration that Emily having “a brown husband” will open her up to criticism in the art world, or a drunken Amir’s admission to conflicted feelings about the 9/11 attacks, or a sober Amir’s declaration that he and Jory are such outsiders in their workplace that they’re “the new Jews” – seem constructed not to give us insights into the characters but to give the characters something to fight about for a minute, or until the next hot topic comes up. Eventually the seams of the play’s construction become so obvious that little about the play seems authentic – especially the characters’ motivations. And since there’s not one likable character in Disgraced, it’s hard to feel moved when their feelings get hurt.
Pej Vahdat’s performance as Amir seems curiously lacking in passion, and he shows little chemistry with Monette Magrath’s focused Emily. Ben Graney and Aimé Donna Kelly fare well as the visiting couple, and Anthony Mustafa Adair shows nice variety as the nephew who undergoes a significant transformation. Mary B. Robinson’s direction feels too detached – the big climax is lacking in excitement, and Graney’s first scene, which seems intended as a parody of the art world, is lacking in big laughs. Robinson also makes an odd staging choice during the dinner scene by seating Graney at a position that blocks Vahdat from the audience’s view for several minutes. It’s hard to concentrate on what the main character is saying when you can’t see him.
Jason Simms provides an elegant, gorgeous design for the apartment, and Christopher Colucci’s music combines crisp, contemporary acoustic guitar with the traditional sounds of the sitar and the tabla.
Late in Disgraced, Amir tells Isaac “You really enjoy playing the contrarian, don’t you?” The same could be said for everyone in this play, and for its playwright too.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Disgraced plays All Poststhrough November 8, 2015 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.