If you think we are over-saturated with passionate discussions of race, gender, nationality, and religion during this chaotic election year — think again. There is still much to be probed, and learned. The highly personal issues of identity and loyalty that underlie our fractious society are given brilliant voice in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, winner of a 2013 Pulitzer Prize and the most-produced play of the 2015/2016 theater season. Under the assured direction of Timothy Douglas, Arena Stage’s new production makes a unique and eloquent contribution to the dialogue.
Using only five characters, one set, and 90 minutes without intermission, Akhtar explores the tensions that exist between African-Americans, Jews, and Muslims, and addresses urgent questions about assimilation and American identity, using a gorgeous Upper East Side apartment as his social laboratory.
Amir, a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney at a Jewish law firm in New York, eased his way up the ladder partially by changing his name and masking his Muslim heritage. By contrast, his gorgeous white wife Emily, a talented artist, champions Islamic pictorial traditions, claiming that their contributions to aesthetics have been unfairly neglected by Westerners. When Emily teams with Amir’s impressionable nephew Abe to encourage Amir to honor his roots by meeting with an imam perhaps unjustly charged with raising money for terrorists, Amir hesitates but ultimately agrees, setting in motion an ultimately tragic chain of events.
Amir’s tortured relationship with his origins, which he has rejected intellectually but that still exert a powerful emotional pull, are further exposed in the pivotal, incendiary encounter with Isaac, a Jewish museum curator who is attracted to Emily’s work (and to Emily herself), and his African-American wife Jory, a powerhouse attorney also employed by Amir’s firm. During dinner at Amir and Emily’s apartment – ostensibly to celebrate Emily’s inclusion in Isaac’s upcoming exhibition — mild but awkward banter about racial profiling in airports takes on a steadily more ominous tone. As Amir drinks to excess, the conversation moves on to Muslim philosophy, the meaning of 9-11, Israel’s right to exist, and who, exactly, are America’s true underdogs. By the end of this brutal, knock-out scene, which takes a number of breathtaking twists, Akhtar’s gloves-off dialogue elicits audible gasps from the audience.
Disgraced demands strong and fearless performances by all of its actors, and the Arena cast proves equal to the task. Nehal Joshi plays Amir with the bravado of a successful attorney who is nonetheless extremely sensitive to the identity he has forged. As his subterfuge is discovered, he becomes increasingly agitated and ultimately bewildered by his fate.
Ivy Vahanian as Emily is by turns sensual, idealistic, and ambitious. A staunch supporter of her husband, she becomes horrified by his actions, and also her own, causing her to rethink both her life and her art. Felicia Curry plays Jory with the strutting confidence of a woman who has learned how to bargain and succeed in penetrating the upper echelons of a major firm. The character of Isaac has somewhat less definition than the others, but Joe Isenberg inhabits this consummate New Yorker easily, using his professional power to attract Emily and providing an effective foil to Amir’s steadily increasing bellicosity.
Samip Raval, as Amir’s nephew, aches with the confusion that comes with growing up in a hostile society. He wobbles between assimilation and militancy – mirrored in part by his name-changing from Hussein to Abe and ultimately back to Hussein. We watch sadly as his life, like Amir’s, begins to skid off the rails.
Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James does a masterful job of defining the characters and accentuating their changes over the brief timespan encompassed by the play. Amir’s smartly cut suits and remarked-upon $600 shirts give way to a decidedly less powerful cardigan sweater. Abe signals his transition into a more defiant posture with a switch from urban grunge to traditional Muslim attire. Jory’s sexy, tight pantsuit and killer stilettos are a stark contrast to the relaxed threads of her arty, intellectual spouse.
Set Designer Tony Cisek’s magnificent temple to New York success is decorated in cool greys, rich teaks, and understated but obviously expensive furnishings. Every object is thoughtfully placed in the spacious living and dining area, including Emily’s star painting, an homage to Islamic design. A balcony, the envy of most New Yorkers, overlooks the lit-up Chrysler Building. The extraordinary tastefulness of the apartment ultimately heightens the tragedy when it, like the central character himself, unravels. Sensitive lighting by Michael Gilliam ushers us from one scene to the next. He, and Sound Designer Fitz Patton, who is also responsible for original composition, move us convincingly through the visual, psychological, and aural tumult that concludes this amazing play.
Ayad Akhtar tells us that his own questions about ethnicity and religiosity, plus his interest in the question of fate, inspired the creation of Disgraced. We are indeed lucky to have such a clear and original voice added to the discussion of our most urgent cultural concerns.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.