Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 23, 2014
Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Kimberly Senior. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Cast: Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, Josh Radnor, with Danny Ashok, Karen Pittman.
First there’s its centerpiece scene, set over fennel-anchovy salad, in which four friends clash over class and racial divisions they didn’t know they didn’t know they had. Long-simmering tensions between the two married couples, and all the individuals who have complicated relationships with the opposite-sex person they’re not married to, explode during a diesel-powered exchange in which genuine physical violence is practically an afterthought.
They have legitimate reasons for fighting, it should be pointed out. Amir (Hari Dhillon) is an apostate-Muslim mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who lied about his ethnic background to get a job at his current firm, but who unwittingly revealed himself when misidentified as council for an imam accused of radical acts. Amir’s white wife, Emily (Gretchen Mol), is an artist fascinated with Islamic culture who’s begun letting it influence all her work. Isaac (Josh Radnor), curator of the Whitney, loves what she’s done and wants to put her paintings in his new show. And Isaac’s African-American wife, Jory (Karen Pittman), has worked with Amir only a short time but seems to be on the way up while he’s on the way down.
Once they start sharing their genuine feelings about all matters vaguely Middle Eastern, from the influence of Jerusalem to Amir’s opinions on September 11, they discover that no one else is quite who they thought. Or, for that matter, can even sit down to a meal with. Too many people unwilling to admit who they are — or the source of their distaste toward certain political or ethnic groups — ensures that the fireworks will take flight and heat up the evening, if they don’t set the walls ablaze first.
Yeah, about that. Despite the inherent blistering energy of this scene, it lands with a soggy thud in Kimberly Senior’s production — which puts it on par with the rest of Disgraced. Akhtar’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize last year, must operate consistently on all cylinders merely to stay upright; what leads up to the climactic meal, mostly front-heavy exposition or heavy-handed symbolism (our first glimpse of Emily and Amir involves her painting him as a modern-day slave in an homage to Diego Velázquez), is not captivating writing. And the characters’ problems are highlighted as with a neon-yellow marker outlining “dumb mistake,” “fatal flaw,” and so on.
There aren’t many layers here, nor is there much emotional setup for the conflagration to follow. (Really, these people have known each other this long and are just discovering their prejudices?) Amir’s errors are dropped in rather conveniently, and left for us to discover, and scenes respectively unfold two weeks, three months, and six months after we’re introduced to the situation. Akhtar does nothing to earn that epic a time span, nor do events develop offstage as much as you want them to — there’s an arbitrary quality about it all. Alternately sloppy and corset-overtight, in writing as well as Senior’s staging, the action is not compelling except as a run-up and a come-down from that dinner scene, quite obviously the point for everyone involved.
It really has to be amazing, then, doesn’t it? When Disgraced premiered at Lincoln Center two years ago (with an almost entirely different cast, Pittman being the only holdover) it was. But the Claire Tow Theater is tiny, and you felt as though you were another guest at the party, which made every verbal and physical blow land with additional force. In a Broadway-size theater, even on John Lee Beatty’s extravagant Upper-East-Side palace set, and with actors who, for the most part, are not up to projecting the required size, the group may as well be squabbling over an imperfect appetizer. Once this scene is no more than that, the show plays as even smaller and less consequential than it did before.
Only Pittman and Danny Ashok, who plays Amir’s nephew Abe and is reprising his role from the London production, are up to the challenge. Pittman’s cool, businesslike demeanor betrays an acidic personality that can eat up anything around it, and watching how Jory slowly transforms from collected sophisticate into a standard-bearer for righteous outrage is the one true joy of this production. Abe, a young Muslim who thoroughly Americanizes himself before realizing how little that sometimes means, is underwritten and underutilized, but Ashok portrays him with a grim, intense fervor.
There’s no heat to be found in the remaining performances. Radnor looks stiff and uncomfortable; Isaac comes across as neither straitlaced nor worldly, nor in fact much of anything else. Mol barks most of her lines, and hardly convinces as an adventurous, knowledgeable artist with as much a passion for religion as for men. Dhillon does quiet well enough, but when he raises his voice above a whisper, both the actor and character seem exactly the one thing they must not be: tentative.
Amir, after all, is a man who knows what he wants and is willing to go to any lengths, risk anything — from his livelihood to his very life — for what he believes most deeply. In this Disgraced, it’s tough to accept that he really believes in much of anything at all, which, even more than the dinner scene that isn’t, leaves you hungry.