October 27, 2016

“Disgraced” at McCarter Confronts Troubling Contemporary Issues, Poses Hard Questions About Islamophobia and Cultural Identity


HOSPITALITY TO HOSTILITY: (L to R) Amir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Emily (Caroline Kaplan), Isaac (Kevin Isola), and Jory (Austene Van) enjoy a cordial dinner before resentments surface and the mood turns dark in McCarter Theatre’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced,” at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre through October 30. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

If Ayad Akhtar’s characters had followed my grandmother’s warning, “We never discuss politics or religion at social occasions,” his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced would never have been written.

Now playing in a riveting production at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, the 90-minute uninterrupted, four-scene exploration of identity, Islam, and what it means to be Muslim in contemporary America, as seen through the interwoven lives of five New York City characters, was the most often produced play in the United States in the 2015-16 season. 

Disgraced, which opened in Chicago in early 2012, saw its New York premiere at Lincoln Center later that year, and finally came to Broadway in 2014, where it received a Tony nomination for Best Play, is produced here in association with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. This production, directed by the Guthrie’s Marcela Lorca, originated at the Guthrie, will play at McCarter through October 30, then move to Milwaukee to complete its run.

Disgraced is not always pleasant to watch, as its singularly unheroic characters struggle through identity crises, the politics and religion become personal, and the drama uncovers uncomfortable truths hidden beneath the deceptive surfaces of upwardly mobile New York society.

But this powerful, polished, provocative McCarter production makes it obvious why Disgraced has been so popular and fascinating for audiences at numerous productions throughout the country, and why McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann was eager to bring it here.

The play focuses on Amir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), American-born, assimilated Pakistani lawyer working his way up in a prestigious Manhattan law firm. He is married to Emily (Caroline Kaplan), a white artist, who is fascinated with Islamic culture and art and draws on those influences in her own work as she prepares for her first big gallery show. Their lavish Upper East Side apartment, over a period of several months in 2011-2012, is the setting for the four scenes of the play.

Amir’s rejection of his Muslim heritage, to the point where he has even deceived many of his colleagues at work into thinking he is from India rather than Pakistan, causes friction with his wife and with his 22-year-old nephew Abe (Adit Dileep), name changed from Hussein, who stops by to try to enlist his uncle’s support for the imam of his mosque, who has been arrested under suspicion of raising money for Hamas.

Conflicts for Amir increase, with his denial of his Muslim identity and with the Jewish partners of his firm over what they see as his support for the imam and his duplicity surrounding his Islamic background.

The third scene opens with Amir visibly upset and drinking heavily, as he and Emily prepare to entertain Isaac (Kevin Isola), a Whitney Museum curator who has helped to arrange the inclusion of Emily’s work in an upcoming show, and his wife Jory (Austene Van), a colleague in Amir’s law firm.

The evening begins with cordiality and apparent warmth and good humor on all sides, but before long the mood darkens, as the liquor flows freely, secrets are revealed, and provocative statements are made — about politics, religion, race, and ethnicity. (Isaac is Jewish. Jory is black.) Shocking truths and bitter resentments emerge, and the civilized surface behaviors give way to savagery underneath — reminiscent of similarly vicious social gatherings in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (2006) and Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

As the play approaches its climax, the dialogue bristles, the pace quickens, and the characters come to life in all their troubled, sometimes pitiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes brutal humanity. Mr. Akhtar’s complex illumination of these characters is relentlessly thorough and detailed.

The play raises important, upsetting questions — crucial questions about our lives in the 21st century in this violent, multi-cultural, conflicted country. Answers, resolutions are left for the audience to work out, perhaps in their own lives and communities.

“There is no grand statement in Disgraced,” the 45-year-old playwright stated in an interview quoted in the program. “What there is, is a series of contradictions, and those contradictions is the experience I want the audience to be confronted with.”

The cast of Disgraced is first-rate — credible and engaging, each providing a sympathetic and intriguing contemporary character.

Mr. Ebrahimzadeh as Amir provides a strong, convincing focus for the action of the play — in his sophisticated swagger as a confident, successful lawyer; in his loving, often difficult interactions with his wife; in his attempts to help his nephew; in his contentious relationships with Isaac and Jory; in his struggle to reconcile his Muslim heritage with his ambitious pursuit of the American Dream; and in his ultimate disgrace.

Portraying an equally complex, troubled persona, Ms. Kaplan’s Emily is an intriguing counterpart to Amir. Mr. Dileep’s Abe provides another thought-provoking perspective on the challenges of being Muslim in contemporary America, as, during the course of the play, he encounters the fears of society, and he questions his aunt and uncle and his own desire to assimilate.

Mr. Isola’s Isaac and Ms. Van’s Jory create memorable high-energy characters and deliver stellar performances in confronting Amir and helping to propel the play to its striking, unsettling climax.

Ms. Lorca has directed with skill and intelligence, moving the action forward at a brisk pace. She succeeds in achieving her goal, as she states in the program, “to invite an audience to empathize with each of our characters, and to not only root for the winners but to hold the ones who lose in their hearts, to be able to understand them.”

In transitions between the scenes she reveals upstage what appears to be the city street below, with characters passing and interacting, as the audience is reminded of the larger context of the world outside the apartment and the lives of these characters and others in the big city.

Production values here are consistently excellent, richly enhancing the creation of setting and mood in the shimmering, disturbing world of Disgraced: James Youmans’ elegant, elaborately detailed set; Ana Kuzmanic’s stylish costumes; Rui Rita’s nuanced, often shadowy lighting; and Scott Edwards’ emotionally affecting sound design, reflecting the atmosphere of the city and the unsettling mood of the play; with original music — sometimes jazzy, sometimes discordant — by Sanford Moore.

Disgraced, the first play ever written by Mr. Akhtar, whose novel American Dervish has been published in more than 20 languages, is so deftly, expertly crafted that it risks at times feeling contrived, with its five characters, each embodying different ethnic, religious, political perspectives, and its events flowing so neatly towards the play’s climactic breaking point. These minor flaws, however, if they are flaws, do make for enthralling, provocative drama.

Every performance of this emotionally charged, upsetting play is followed by a short discussion, giving audience members the chance to “continue the conversation and reflect on your experience with fellow audience members,” perhaps taking up the questions that the play itself has posed and working towards the answers that Mr. Akhtar and his protagonist continue to seek.