It is sometimes difficult to imagine what theater might be able to further contribute to an already contentious national conversation about tolerance and devisiveness in America. An unconventional election season has placed our culture into an echo chamber of misconstrued facts and figures, along with a swarm of closely-held prejudices.
However, the past few years of this cultural climate have propelled Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced into becoming one of the most produced plays in the country, increasing the temperature of some of the most challenging discussions we face as Americans. McCarter Theatre Center’s current production confronts these issues of nationalism, terrorism, Islamophobia, and religious identity (to name a few) with fearlessness and style.
Director Marcela Lorca’s approach is clear:
These characters are not heroes; they are complex people who often harbor conflicting points of view. In the same way, our world is not simple, not easy, and true understanding will only derive from our willingness to ask hard questions, embrace contradictions and empathize with those who differ from us.
Akhtar’s premise under Lorca’s direction is a stylistically enhanced slice of life. Set in a swanky apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, the upwardly mobile Amir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) and his wife Emily (Caroline Kaplan) host a dinner party that slowly escalates into an intense and eviscerating battle of wits, to shocking and sometimes horrifying results. Along with their guests Isaac (Kevin Isola) and Jory (Austene Van), the quartet is made up of two high-profile lawyers and two elite artists, guaranteeing that this is indeed not your average dinner conversation.
Akhtar’s characters speak intelligently, eloquently, and only occasionally pedantically, with an intense self-awareness yet are still unable to resist hurling racial epithets at one another. The perspectives are sophisticated and complex, especially on the topics of dual identities and belonging. Marcela Lorca’s vision enhances the text with interstitial tableaux and a heightened awareness towards interconnectedness.
James Youmans’ set design is a dreamy, luxurious open concept apartment with all the bells and whistles that come with a six-figure New York mergers and acquisitions salary, complete with artfully transparent surfaces to catch a glimpse of the hidden everyday behaviors.
Sound Designer Scott W. Edwards, along with Composer Sanford Moore, fill the time between scenes with a thumping jazz fusion, as Lighting Designer Rui Rita highlights the fascinating contemporary architecture with both warmth and intensity. Costume Designer Ana Kuzmanic continues to escalate the aesthetic with unique designer-wear appropriate to these particular upscale lifestyles.
At the center of it all, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is captivating as protagonist Amir, an American-born Muslim-raised lawyer who gets tangled up in optics and drowned out by preconceived notions. He has an easy grace and an infectious smile, at war with an inner turmoil, yet still especially compassionate in scenes with his nephew Abe (Abit Dileep). There are times when the circumstances seem so stacked against him that the playwright retains the upper hand, but Ebrahimzadeh’s natural charisma and nobility make this uniquely flawed anti-hero a joy to explore.
Rarely pulling any punches, the dialogue is intelligent, searing, and shocking. Akhtar addresses issues large and small that continue to plague the American psyche regardless of race or religious origin. The final scenes don’t do much to conveniently tie up any loose ends, which only enforces that Disgraced is a perfect fit for theater lovers who love to raise questions. There are no easy answers here, but rather a faithful representation of the complexities we wrestle in a confused world and within this culture of contradictions.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.