Sometimes, we are confronted with a play so powerful and an experience so visceral that we freeze; we encounter life’s problems unfolding before us in frighteningly accurate detail. This was my experience at the Huntington Theatre Company’s Disgraced by Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar. In a tightly-written, probing but naturalistic one-act drama, we explore all that it means to assimilate and assume everything about our American culture and the melting pot that we have become in the past hundred years. Now, more than ever, we see the consequences and choices of this decision to pour our lives into this melting pot, and what we retain of our past selves and cultures. Brilliant director Gordon Edelstein and the five-person cast of the Huntington’s Disgraced cook up a delicious morsel that is served best over post-show conversation; while the themes and content might be hard to swallow, you will feel more thankful for the experience of tasting one of the most fulfilling theatrical experiences in recent memory.
Disgraced centers around Mergers & Acquisitions Attorney Amir Kapoor (played with twitching intensity by Rajesh Bose), a Pakistani man of Muslim roots, and his wife, Emily (played with pitch-perfect nuance by Nicole Lowrance), a Caucasian artist who appropriates Islamic art. Their ambitious pursuits of success lead to horrific realizations about their sacrifices and choices in corporate and cultural America. Amir has changed his name and renounced his Muslim heritage, until Amir’s nephew, Abe (played with burning sincerity by Mohit Gautam), tries to acquire Amir’s help in representing imam, a man and leader from Abe’s mosque. This confrontation speaks volumes about Amir’s priorities, as he worries about the repercussions at his (largely Jewish) law firm. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished (or unpublished) as Amir’s name appears in the New York Times connected with this man and his alleged terrorism. Now, we’re cooking.
Though the beginning starts as a slow boil of relationships, exposition, and introductions, the real act begins at a dinner party at Amir and Emily’s posh apartment, exquisitely designed and detailed by Scenic Designer Lee Savage, with Emily’s potential curator, Isaac (played with wonderful depth by Benim Foster), a Jewish man with strong opinions on ethnicity and culture; and Isaac’s partner and Amir’s co-worker, Jory (played with outstanding arched wit by Shirine Babb), an African American lawyer climbing the corporate ladder. Together, these are the main ingredients for an explosive party. Their characterizations are sharply-defined, a product of their (mostly) strong performances as well as their essence captured in the costume design by Ilona Somogyi (who offers a refreshing attention to detail to emphasize personality and mood). All four of these characters are the by-products of assimilation in our country. From daily choices about how much to reveal at work to career decisions to reconcile Israeli-Palestine artwork and culture, these characters are confronted with the gravity and dynamic of these decisions. Emily earns a spot in Isaac’s new piece, but at what cost? Amir learns devastating news about his work, but how much of it was because of his own prior actions? When do we stop blaming others for their feelings and reactions to our other-ness and look to ourselves in how we treat ourselves as others?
The ninety-minute play is explosive and shockingly poignant. Yes, the characters jump to conclusions, but these reactions only underscore how important the decisions and effects are upon these characters, their values, and their daily lives. As a gay attorney, I couldn’t help find some correlation (albeit a small one) between Amir’s fears and reactions to the current anti-Islamic undercurrent in corporate America and my own tightrope walking as part of the LGBTQ community. Bose is sometimes a bit too quirky in the role, often raising an eyebrow and contorting his face to an almost comical effect, but his works speak louder than his actions. His confrontations with Lowrance’s Emily are outstanding, reverberating with history and affection, while deeply misunderstanding your partner in subtle ways. The best moments are when Bose, Lowrance, Foster, and Babb interact, feeding off of each other’s slightly different energy; the result is an electric and eclectic dinner party. Director Edelstein orchestrates the mood shifts perfectly, taking us on an exciting ride as voyeurs into encounters that we know are happening in living rooms around the country.
Their conflict is our catharsis; finally, we have real issues onstage for us to grapple with through the lens of fictional characters. Theatre becomes an opportunity to appreciate each other better, and understand ourselves. We have choice words for these kinds of play, depending on how you like your theatre served: intellectualism, preachy, hot-topic, hot, exciting. I prefer to call it inspiring. I feel the story, its characters, its themes even days later, giving me food for thought. Won’t you join me by trying Disgraced for yourself?