Full review: DISGRACED

by Lynn on April 9, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Written by Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Robert Ross Parker
Set and Costumes by Sue LePage
Lighting by Rebecca Picherack
Sound by John Gzowski
Starring: Raoul Bhaneja
Karen Glave
Ali Momen
Michael Rubenfeld
Birgitte Solem

A hard hitting play about race, religion, racism, relationships and stereotyping.

The Story
. Amir Kapoor is a Pakistani-American lawyer who is living the dream of success with his artist wife Emily, who is blonde and white. He has turned his back on Islam and being a practicing Muslim, and just wants to focus on moving up the corporate ladder in hopes of making partner in his law firm.

Emily, on the other hand, is an artist who admires Islamic art, its history and what it has contributed to the form. Her paintings are focused on this kind of art. Amir and Emily are supportive of each other.

But matters change when they invite Isaac, an important art curator, and his African-American wife Jory for dinner. Isaac is Jewish. Emily hopes Isaac will use her art work in a show he is creating. Jory works in the same law firm as Amir.

Matters go from cordial to combative when Amir’s beliefs are challenged; when stereotypes are referenced; when the Quran and its meaning are cited and misinterpreted, which leads to more heated debate. Matters spiral out of control when Amir reacts to several stunning bits of information.

The Production. Sue LePage’s set is of a stylish, expensive New York apartment. There is a balcony stage left. Various artworks are carefully placed around the apartment. Pride of place is one of Emily’s works upstage centre.

The production, directed by Robert Ross Parker, begins quietly and slowly. Amir poses in profile, in a shirt, tie, blazer and undershorts as Emily paints his portrait in the style of Diego Velásquez. Velásquez painted a portrait of his assistant (then a slave) Juan de Pareja, in profile, in an ornate top with his right arm bent across his chest. Amir assumes the same pose with a modern take—a shirt, tie and jacket with his right arm bent over his chest. Later we come to see an ironic connection between the two paintings.

Emily is calm but irritated by a waiter who served them the night before who was rude to Amir. Amir sloughs it off. Emily won’t let it go. The inference is that the waiter might have made some racist reference. Amir wants to more on.

While he’s posing he receives phone calls regarding work. In these calls Amir is decisive, in command and impressive in his dealings. When he goes back to posing he and Emily are loving and sensual.

Amir’s nephew Abe appears appealing to Amir to visit an imam in prison for moral support. Amir hesitates but goes because Emily asks him to. This will not reflect well on Amir in the future. Later we are introduced to Isaac, the art curator who comes to see Emily’s work, possibly for inclusion in an exhibit.

A few months later Amir and Emily host a dinner party for Isaac and his wife, Jory. There is good news, Isaac will include Emily’s work in the exhibit. But there are sobering revelations too. Amir is on the defensive to justify his lapsing from Islam; to explain how he feels as a Muslim. Isaac is challenged. Tension steadily builds in emotion and conviction as Amir tries to get a grip on what is happening.

The production on opening night started tentatively, with several pauses where there should not have been any. Matters smoothed out as the evening went on. I anticipate the pauses to be worked out as the production plays. In the end it’s a terrific production. Robert Ross Parker has directed the work so that the tensions simmer until they boil over in explosive revelations. The balance is maintained so that the audience is teetering one way and then another with regards to where their allegiances lay. (A personal quibble is the presence of amplification that is a bit too loud and distracting at first.)

This is a first rate cast. Raoul Bhaneja, as Amir, is commanding, confident, appropriately abrasive and slow to rise to a challenge, but when he does, it’s explosive and devastating. It is also heartbreaking when we learn the cost to Amir of suppressing reference to his religion and culture.

Playing Amir’s wife Emily is Birgitte Solem who is gracious, subdued, even in irritation with the rude waiter from the night before, but a woman who can stand on her own. Does it matter that she is Raoul Bhaneja’s wife? Not really, but it does add a kind of short hand between the two.

Ali Momen plays Abe, Amir’s nephew and introduces the difference between a man who is always questioning his place in his culture and religion and Amir who has submerged it. Momen is respectful but is staunch in his beliefs. Momen beautifully plays Abe’s conflict.

Amir is really faced with his own prejudices and his attitudes when Isaac and Jory come for dinner. Isaac, as played by Michael Rubenfeld, is both insensitive and combative in many thrusts and parries with Amir. Isaac is confident in his Jewishness and able to be fair-minded when it comes to Israel. His attitude towards his culture and background is everything Amir is not. Watching Rubenfeld and Bhaneja wrangle over politics, religion and culture is to watch two actors at the top of their game.

When Isaac and Jory arrive she knows information that will shatter Amir and she has to tell him. Karen Glave, who plays her, has that confidence that seems like a coat of armour. She does not swagger. She is politically savvy and in the world of cultural politics she has the upper hand over Amir. But confident though she is, her amour is easily pricked and that happens in a moment she doesn’t count on. Every life changes at that dinner party.

Comment. Ayad Akhtar has written a bracing, challenging, incendiary play that tests our assumptions and presumptions about Islam, Muslims, Jews, race, religion, stereotyping and marriage. It has justifiably won the Pulitzer Prize for 2013.

While Amir tries to submerge any thoughts about his religion, culture and background, he is constantly faced with it. The rude waiter reminds him. Isaac reminds him. His nephew reminds him. He is aware of course when he ‘lies’ about where his parents were born. He is aware when he feels he must work longer than anyone in the firm; arrive before anyone else and leave after everyone leaves. He is aware even when he buys shirts with a ridiculously high thread count—he must look the part of a successful lawyer. All his pent up emotions and the reasons for his frustration come out in one explosive moment.

Nothing is accidental in a play written by a gifted playwright like Ayad Akhtar, so I find it fascinating that with a dinner party as important as this one, Emily does not check with her guests if there are any food restrictions or things they don’t like. She is serving pork tenderloin, but doesn’t ask Isaac, a Jew, beforehand if he eats pork. Do we assume that because Amir, a lapsed Muslim, presumably eats pork, that Emily assumes that Isaac will also eat pork? That’s an insensitive assumption.

Similarly Emily is serving a salad with anchovies but never asks Isaac or Jory if they like something as particular as anchovies. Instead, she says she hopes they like that stuff when they are there in the apartment, ready to eat it. Luckily they do like those two foods. Again, it’s presumptuous, that since Emily and Amir like her fennel and anchovy salad, that their guests will like it, and so she doesn’t ask beforehand. There’s a whole lot of entitlement going on on all sides in this challenging, wonderfully prickly play.

David Mirvish presents the Hope and Hell Theatre Co. production.

: April 7, 2016.
Closes: April 24, 2016.
Cast: 5; 3 men, 2 women
Running Time: 80 minutes


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