Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Disgraced focuses on the successful lawyer Amir, who was raised as a Muslim but changed his name and basically rejected his Muslim heritage to distance himself from his past and to further his career. His white, blonde, American artist wife Emily has previously become fascinated with the Islamic influence on art history and incorporates it into her paintings, much to her husband's dismay. Due to Emily's insistence, Amir reluctantly gives support in court to his young nephew Abe's incarcerated imam, who may or may not have terrorist ties. A few months later, Amir's involvement comes to the forefront when they host a dinner party for Jory, the African-American associate at Amir's firm, and her Jewish husband, who is an art curator for the Whitney and interested in possibly presenting a show that features Emily's paintings. To say any more would give away the many twists and turns the play takes, but rest assured, this is one dinner party that makes the uncomfortable dinner scene in August: Osage County seem like a friendly family meal.
Akhtar's dialogue is smart, with realistic characters and truthful relationships, and the entire play is engaging. While a couple of the plot points are slightly forced and the ending could be more focused, he does raise many valid questions. Can a person turn against the way he was raised and the beliefs he was taught by his family and his religion? Or do those thoughts never truly go away but continue to linger and gnaw away at the person? As far as racial profiling goes, shouldn't we, as Emily states, not get "wrapped up in the optics" and instead look at things and people for what they really are? Even the title of the play provokes questions. Are Amir and the other characters the ones who feel disgraced by their thoughts and the events that their beliefs provoke, or are we the ones who should feel disgraced by how the play makes us question the beliefs and feelings about others that we have tried to bury deep inside? Are we our ethnicity or our religion, or does our individuality trump all? Even when writing about the characters in the play it is easy to simply say they are Muslim, Jewish, Black and White. But the point of the piece is that everyone is more than what they first appear to be, more than just what we see from the outside, and more than just a stereotype or the color of their skin or their religion.
Director David Ira Goldstein skillfully directs the production to keep the tension ever rising but also allowing Akhtar's many very funny moments to come through in a realistic manner, while ensuring that the serious topics that arise never take a back seat. He also has cast the play with an exceptional group of actors, all able to portray their characters and the relationships they have with each other realistically. Elijah Alexander makes quite an impression as Amir. From his expressions and body language we clearly see the struggle he is up against and how the need to assimilate, be successful, and do the right thing is his guiding force. But when confronted, he can't keep his feelings buried any longer. As Emily, Allison Jean White is often put in the role of the peacekeeper, both between Amir and Abe and between Amir and Isaac and Jory, and White plays the part very well, negotiating effectively between the parties. But we soon learn that Emily also has reasons to be disgraced and it is then that we see the anguish, pain, and disgust she feels as well, all effectively portrayed by White.
As Isaac and Jory, Richard Baird and Nicole Lewis make you believe that they've been married for a long time and both display great comic timing. But when the stakes are raised and they are under attack the humor falls to the wayside with both Baird and Lewis becoming forces to be reckoned with. In the smaller role of Amir's nephew, Vandit Bhatt brings a youthful energy. All five cast members exhibit nuanced performances that makes you believe their feelings and beliefs while they each also confront the audience's preconceived notions and stereotypes.
Creative elements are nothing short of exceptional, with John Ezell's scenic design of Amir and Emily's luxurious apartment simply stunning. David Lee Cuthbert's lighting evokes the day and nighttime scenes exceptionally well, while the costume designs by Kish Finnegan effectively portray the upper middle class status of the cast.
Disgraced is a humorous and harrowing, smart and brutal drama that is ultimately about how no one and nothing is quite what it seems. But it also shows that when confronted, the truth of what people believe comes out and we clearly see how they really feel. Arizona Theatre Company's production of this Pulitzer Price winning play is exceptionally well cast, designed, and directed and results in great theater with plenty of food for thought.
Disgraced at Arizona Theatre Company runs through November 29th, 2015, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling 602-2566995.
Written by Ayad Akhtar