Huntington Theatre's "Disgraced": Identity Theft

Shirine Babb, Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance & Benim Foster in "Disgraced"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There are many levels on which Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning play “Disgraced” may be viewed as controversial. First and foremost, there is its portrayal of an American Muslim as a protagonist who is his own antagonist, leading to a repeated theme of self-loathing. Coupled with this is the playwright's frank refusal to make excuses or even to explain away the content of his work. Huntington Theatre Company's current production, in association with Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, manages to present the author's intentional ambiguity in a wonderfully nuanced form as helmed here by Long Wharf's Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.

The play begins innocuously enough, with a seemingly civilized debate between Amir Kapoor (Rajesh Bose), an upwardly mobile Islamic-American mergers and acquisitions attorney in a prestigious New York law firm, and his WASP artist wife Emily (Nicole Lowrance) about a 1650 Velasquez painting of Juan de Parega that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. She correctly describes the subject of the painting as one of the painter's workshop assistants; he equally correctly notes that he was in fact the painter's slave. Their disagreement is superficially civil, but the undertones of discord hint at more substantial discourse to come. It's only the first of many looming dangers in the playwright's threatening minefield, which comes to the boiling point over a dinner party involving another married couple, Isaac (Benim Foster) who is rather too conveniently Emily's Jewish art dealer and Jory (Shirine Babb), also too conveniently an African-American partner in Amir's firm. These types are about all that's conventional about this play, which is somewhat reminiscent of Yasmine Reza's God of Carnage, which Huntington mounted three seasons ago. Before the pork tenderloin (even the menu is culturally charged in this play) is served, there are revelations, lies and deceits aplenty. Central to the story in the life which Amir has chosen is his submission to the dominant American culture and his desperate striving for total assimilation, which is initially mirrored by his nephew Abe (Mohit Gautam). The cost of this choice becomes increasingly apparent as we learn more and more about the pain Amir (and, by extension, the American Muslim community) feels today.

In such a brief work (just shy of ninety minutes) there's little room for subtlety, but Akhtar has nonetheless created a societal world that's impossible to ignore. In this post-9/11 age, none of us can claim to be unaffected by the increasingly visible presence of Muslim identity, whether religious or cultural. The play asks, or rather demands, that we too become involved in this shared theatrical event, and question our own tenets regarding ethnicity, social standing and choice between order and justice. It's no coincidence that this is the most produced play across the country this theatrical season. It's relentlessly and powerfully disturbing, and ultimately discomforting, with only a little comic relief in the character of Jory, though she too is concealing truths and is finally confrontational. Toward its climactic end, as Amir faces his own corrupted image, we come to realize that the majority culture still defines the Muslim subculture even as it is forced to defend itself. What's at stake here is not so much the actual content of the play but in fact the reactions of its audiences. As Amir laments, the majority has “disgraced us and don't understand our rage”. In our largely Islamophobic world, Amir has disgraced himself while the larger community in turn disgraces his people and their culture. There's plenty of guilt to be shared. It's an extraordinary out-of-body experience to discover suddenly that there are in fact six actors in play, and the sixth is yourself.

In attempting to describe the piece, it may sound like a profound and pedantic polemic, but the superb acting of all five actors makes it live, breathe and persist in memory, as does Edelstein's superb direction. The creative team also contributes to grounding the work in reality, from the relatively simple but tasteful Scenic Design by Lee Savage to the smartly individualized Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi (who nails the bizarre couture of the Upper East Side), as well as the fitting Lighting Design by Eric Southern and Sound Design by David Van Tieghem. It extends to the Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe, especially notable in the mop-like au courant creation atop Emily's head.

If there's one word that would aptly and succinctly sum up the play, it would have to be “topical”, especially during the current electoral circus. But it's way more than that. It's a deeply moving, even transformational experience (ironically, since those on stage are not transformed so much as revealed). Then again, at one point, Emily posits that “irony is overrated”; whether it is here remains for us the audience to decide. At another point, Isaac speaks of Emily's work as “important and new and needs to be seen widely”. The same could surely be said for this play.

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