Amir Kapoor seems to have it all, a lovely apartment, a lovely (and somewhat WASPy) artistic wife, and a successful career as a corporate lawyer. Not to mention a closet full of cultural and religious anxieties about to yawn all over the living room.
It’s late summer in 2011 in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play, “Disgraced,” now playing at the San Diego Rep, and Amir (Ronobir Lahiri) has carefully constructed an upper-middle class life. American-born, Amir has changed his last name (Abdullah) to something more Punjabi (Kapoor) and traded his childhood connection to Islam for a more urbane and problematic identity as a “South Asian cultural Muslim,” and not a very involved one at that.
His wife, Emily (Allison Spratt Pearce), on the other hand, has done some reconstructing of her own. A painter of somewhat mundane abstracts, Emily has recently discovered ‘Islamic” art, and with the vim and vigor of the recently converted, seems to have conflated the sophisticated patterns with religious practice, and set herself twin missions: land an important solo show and thoughtfully lead Amir back to his “true self.”
To that end, Emily has set up a dinner party with her (Jewish) curator at the Whitney, Isaac (Richard Baird) and his African-American wife, Jory (Monique Gaffney) who works in the same firm Amir does.
But before the dinner can happen, Emily persuades Amir to take up his nephew Abe’s cause, defending a local imam accused of financing terrorism, namely Hamas. Abe, a young American-born Muslim (M. Keala Milles Jr.) grappling with his own identity issues (like a name change from Hussein to Abe), sees in the imam’s trial the embodiment of the Islamophobia swirling through the country. Amir is not so sure, but Emily convinces him, and Amir ends up with his name and that of his firm mentioned in the same article as the imam’s case in the New York Times.
By the time, the drinks are poured for Jory and Isaac, Amir is slowly becoming unglued. He suspects the partners in his law firm question his Americanness (“where were your parents born?” read India good, Pakistani not so much), that the New York Times mention may have scuttled his career (he’s right), and his love for Emily is being seen as part of a massive assimilation ploy (Isaac says he’s kidding, or is he?). And that’s just cocktails.
Over the course of dinner, what passes as civility and urbane polish gets as soiled as the napkins. No one is quite who they want to seem to be and all that one is NOT supposed to talk about at dinner- race, religion, raging regret, turns into one big potluck of pent-up positions. Amir’s feelings about life after 9/11, Emily’s ambitions, Isaac’s surface relationship with “Islamic” anything and Jory’s office scheming get a thorough workout.
Dessert is replaced by a violent climax and Amir’s subsequent fall from marital and professional grace pretty much scotches the aged malt and high-end haberdashery.
The San Diego Rep has a knack for well-dressed sets and John Iacovelli’s layout for “Disgraced” hits just the right note with its tasteful details, understated Manhattan styling and fun swinging kitchen door. Kevin Anthenill’s sound design is interesting and adds a nice touch of subtle commentary on Emily’s new found interest in Islamic art as the quarter tones of the adhan or Muslim call to prayer briefly resound through the theatre.
The cast is uniformly excellent and Arabian follows Akhtar’s direction to keep the show running at a well-paced clip. Broadway veteran Lahiri brings a bite and molten core to Pakistani-American Amir. However, while Lahiri smolders and slowly loses his composure, his Amir doesn’t start far back enough in the process. Amir is palpably on edge from the beginning, and while the climax is shocking, Amir’s journey from urbane lawyer to man pushed over the edge by racism and betrayal is slightly out of focus.
Alison Pratt Pearce, seen as Viola in the Old Globe’s “Twelfth Night,” gives Emily a lovely sense of deep feeling for Amir and an equally deep sense of misguided engagement in art practices she knows almost nothing about. Richard Baird is perfect as Emily’s pretentious foil while Monique Gaffney, recently seen at Moxie, balances the cast as Rory who has been playing the accommodation game much longer than Amir. M. Keala Milles, Jr, completes the cast as Amir’s nephew, Abe. Coming to the Rep. from an excellent turn in Diversionary’s “The Boy Who Danced On Air,” Milles was tentative at first but gained confidence and range as the show continued.
Akhtar, no stranger to controversy of cultural commentary (his brilliant “Junk: The History of Debt” as caustic observation on predatory banking), has created a provocative, disturbing play in “Disgraced,” his Pulitzer Prize winning play (2013). Opening night’s audience seemed slightly discomfited at times, especially when Abe talks about how Muslims have been disgraced and humiliated by the West for centuries through colonization (part of what the title references) or when Amir archly remarks that Emily’s work will be accused of what the late Edward Said would have called “orientalism.”
“Disgraced” is problematic, and Akhtar means for it to disturb, provoke, and encourage viewers to think about issues of race, representation, and how demonizing an ethnic or religious group can cause problems both in mainstream society and within the group.
But is it enough?
Akhtar’s show is in the odd position of being both timely and 15 years behind. For much of the audience, Amir’s concerns about identity and Islamophobia may be revelatory and shocking (Amir admits to a slight frisson of pride that Muslims stood up to the West on 9/11), but for Middle Eastern/Muslim Americans, the questions of how religion fits into their lives, what it means to be American, and how they need to deal with the increasing Islamophobia have been the subject of intense conversations since 9/12.
Akhtar’s most telling moments are those with Emily’s portrait of Amir after that of Juan de Pareja by the Spanish painter Velazquez. Where Emily sees a Moor who has risen in the realms of art, Amir sees Velazquez’ slave. Many in the audience will see it as a charming effort by a wife to paint her husband, but Akhtar, and in the end, Amir, reads it as a not so subtle, though maybe subconscious, reminder that try as he might, Amir is still seen by mainstream America as a talented exotic who fits in as long as he doesn’t stand out.
And that, in these contentious times, may be the most disturbing message of all, both for the Emilys and the Amirs in the audience.