October 24, 2012

It Would Be a Shame to Miss "Disgraced"

It’s not easy to talk honestly about race.  And the fact that it’s no longer just a black-and-white issue in this country ups the degree of difficulty.  Still, many of today’s brightest young playwrights are taking up the challenge and the latest to shoulder it on is Ayad Akhtar, whose ambitious new play Disgraced opened at Lincoln Center’s still-new Claire Tow Theater on Monday night.

Its central character is Amir, who, like Akhtar, is Pakistani-American. Amir is also as assimilated as a guy can get. He’s Ivy League-educated and on the fast track to a partnership at a corporate law firm. He lives in a swanky Upper East Side apartment and is married to a WASPy blonde named Emily who has a promising art career. And his attitude towards Islam is determinedly casual, even a bit contemptuous. 

But the good life begins to unravel for Amir when, as a reluctant favor to his more religious nephew and his liberal wife, he pays a courtesy call on a jailed imam who has been accused of terrorist activities. 

The gesture causes the Jewish managing partners at his firm to doubt Amir’s loyalty. It unsettles the relationship with his friend Jory, an African-American woman who also works at the firm and whose husband Isaac is Emily’s art dealer. It strains his marriage.  But even more important, it causes Amir to question his identity as a Muslim in a post-9/11 America. 

All these issues collide in a liquor-fueled dinner party in which political correctness is abandoned, racial epithets exchanged and the rawest of emotions revealed.

That’s a lot to pack into a 90-minute play and I haven’t even gotten to the other problems in Amir and Emily’s marriage. Yet, despite a tendency towards some soapbox speechifying, Akhtar handles it all pretty well. 

That's because he's created credible characters who push beyond the usual stereotypes. The people in Disgraced are like most human beings, sometimes arrogant when they're right, defensive when they're not but most often stumbling through the murkiness inbetween those certainties.

Akhtar gets superb support from a five-member cast that is sensitively directed by Kimberly Senior.  Leading them is Aasif Mandvi who gives a kickass performance as Amir. 

Mandvi is probably best known for his satirical news reports on the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” but he’s also an experienced stage actor with credits both off-Broadway and in the regional theaters (click here to read a Q&A with the actor) and he is outstanding in this complex role.

Kudos also must go to Erik Jensen, who stepped in at the very last minute to play Isaac when the actor originally cast got sick and had to drop out. Jensen had only been on the job three days when my friend Stan and I saw the show but he was not only off book but had already begun to turn Isaac into a distinctive character.

As we left the theater, Stan said he had enjoyed the play but he questioned whether people really talk like that, particularly about race.  I knew what he meant.  I’d felt much the same way after I saw The Submission (click here for my review) Clybourne Park (click for my review of it) and David Mamet’s defiantly named Race (and click for my review of this one) when I saw them.   

The truth of the matter is that despite all the rhetoric, we don’t really talk honestly about race.  Courageous plays like Disgraced remind us that we really need to find a way to do it. 

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