Guilt by Association

Review of Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre

In the U.S., everyone’s people came from somewhere else. Somewhere back there, whether recently or many generations ago, there lies a place where outsiders were treated as “others”: a “they” who don’t dress, eat, speak, worship, or behave as “we” do. In the U.S., for some, strong identification continues with those in the “old country”; some even bring to this country many of the same customs and they flourish here, putting down “hyphenated American” roots, and celebrating an identity that isn’t simply, generically, “American.” For others, their background is an embarrassment or an association they have tried hard to leave behind, in an effort to “americanize” and assimilate. Sometimes, the civil nature of our generalized American identity suffers major shocks from what most Americans consider “them” “out there”: those other countries and cultures some of us still identify with and that are still an “us.” Then look out.

Ayad Akhtar’s sharply written Disgraced, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed with great sureness of pacing and staging by Gordon Edelstein, very cunningly makes contentious drama out of the inevitable, American clash between “us” and “them.” Here, the clash isn’t on a battlefield; it occurs in that staple of American drama, the living room, and it’s amongst people who work together, are very articulate and quick-witted, and generally capable of putting differences aside for the sake of a convivial evening. Before we get to that Götterdammerung of a dinner party, there is an important prelude.

 Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

We meet successful New York lawyer Amir (Rajesh Bose) and his wife Emily (Nicole Lawrence), a visual artist, as she sketches him standing in an expensive shirt and jacket and his skivvies in their swanky apartment. She’s been inspired to do his portrait in the manner of Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant, a former slave. That should raise eyebrows right there, but the possible domestic issues in that comparison are smoothed over by the couple’s obvious chemistry. She’s doing it, you see, because Amir was “profiled” in a certain way at a restaurant and impressed her with how he handled it. The doorbell rings and before you can say “Allah,” Amir is being profiled by his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam)—formerly Hussein—as someone who should help an imam, imprisoned for allegedly raising funds for the Taliban, because they are both Muslim.

And here’s where Amir—who changed his name to Kapoor (it was Abdullah) and makes the most of the fact that his father was born in India before that region became Pakistan—tries to disavow his background while his wife, who has commenced a series of paintings based on the art of Islam, tries to assert, with the secular detachment of intellectuals, that he should value Islam as she does, as a culture that, like Greece and Rome, can be added to the grab-bag of Western influences. Amir sees it differently, but ultimately, in the interest of family ties or domestic tranquility, does attend the imam’s hearing, though not as counsel. Still, he is quoted in support of the imam in the New York Times, no doubt because he alone, of the battery of attorneys present, “looks like” the imam. His support thus quoted, Amir fears, might raise hackles with the Jewish partners of the firm where he has worked for twenty years and hopes to make partner.

All this is played out with the natural rhythm of a give-and-take where all that seems to be at issue is the right to say “no.” As audience, we tend to sympathize with the put-upon and profiled Amir, and that identification will be tested by what follows.

 Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Without going into plot points and revelations that come about during a dinner that almost comes to blows on an evening that ends in violence, it is clear that Amir’s conviction that he is not one of “them”—a Muslim, much less an anti-American terrorist or “Islamo-fascist”—becomes harder to sustain in the light of his attempt to protest to his wife and guests—Jory (Shirine Babb), a colleague at the firm, and her husband Isaac (Benim Foster), a curator at the Whitney Museum who has taken on Emily’s work—that the Koran and its teachings are inimical to the cultural smorgasbord they believe in. What begins, on Amir’s part, as an effort to disabuse their naïveté with a hectoring lecture becomes a calling-out, particularly when author Akhtar piles up the indiginities Amir must suffer, coming from both workplace and home (Bose’s balanced performance makes Amir not always likeable but at least understandable).

While some of the blows to Amir’s sense of worth seem, in retrospect, a bit contrived, it’s important to stress how effectively it all works in the moment. And that’s because plot developments come to light though characters playing their respective hands with perfectly structured timing, and because reactions are quick and definite. The play might feel talky but rarely does; instead, it feels like we’re spectators of a verbal sporting event that suddenly gets far too personal. Sooner or later, you’re going to take sides.

 Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

The cast is uniformly excellent in carrying off Akhtar’s dialogue, with its very sharp transitions from friendly chatter to spousal joshing to personal slurs with a great feel for how to make clear the stakes and to keep it entertaining. Disgraced joins other recent top-notch Long Wharf productions of successful plays—Clybourne Park, Bad Jews—that specialize in uncomfortable confrontations that can arise when people, here with the aid of much alcohol, begin to say what they really think, or try to make distinctions or demand agreement on ethical or ethnic grounds. Akhtar’s play gets at the underside of America’s lip-service to accepting everyone and at the particular tensions that might surface in mixed race gatherings (Isaac is Jewish; Jory, black; Emily, white and blonde) whenever an issue raises its ugly head.

With its handsome set and costumes and its rigorous grasp of how to use every minute of its under 90-minute running time, Disgraced is a gripping night of theater that has much on its mind. Ultimately the play is about how one decides which “us” to remain true to. To be an American is to be a mutt, and the world is dog eat dog.

 Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)


Disgraced
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: David Van Tieghem; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Hair & Wig Design: Charles LePointe; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato; Assistant Stage Managers: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Tuite; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Rajesh Bose; Nicole Lawrence; Mohit Gautam; Benim Foster; Shirine Babb

Long Wharf Theatre
October 14-November 8, 2015