by Sergei Burbank · November 1, 2014
Gretchen Mol, Karen Pittman, Hari Dhillon, | Josh Radnor | Joan Marcus
It is always someone’s first day in New York City. A tourist, native, or budding artist’s love affair with theater begins tonight at sundown. I sincerely hope that someone’s first Broadway show is this production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. It has the power to make seasoned theatergoers see live performance anew, but I can only imagine what this play will do to someone seeing this level of performance for the very first time. This play is of a kind with works that inspire others to spend lifetimes attempting to reach similar heights; it is a production that makes you dread the curtain’s fall, even as its timing is absolutely perfect, and all you can do is exhale “wow” in the pitch-black moments before returning to a now-altered world.
Amir (Dhillon) is a high-flying corporate lawyer; his wife, Emily (Mol), is a painter whose current phase uses Islamic art as a springboard for her pieces. At the outset of the play, Amir’s nephew, Abe [née Hussein] (Ashok), combines forces with “Aunt Emily” to prevail upon Amir to look into the case of an imam currently in detention for providing material support to terrorism. Amir’s reticence to become involved extends beyond the mere fact that civil rights law is not his realm; its true roots are laid bare during a dinner party with his work colleague and confidant, Jory (Pittman), and her museum curator husband, Isaac (Radnor). Multiple agendas dictate the evening: Emily needs Isaac’s approval to attain a new level of success in the art world. Amir and Jory are friends, but also rivals -- as all ambitious lawyers are. Playful banter becomes earnest discussion, becomes something else entirely. And of course, nothing is what it seems.
It is far too easy to call the dinner party, the play’s centerpiece, “explosive” -- of course it is; the dinner party is a well-used set-piece: a relatively immobile setting where well-educated friends (or strangers), lubricated with liquor and filled with anxiety to appear worldly (or at the very least psychically intact), it is fertile ground for playwrights.
But the dinner party that lies at the heart of Disgraced lives on a different planet. There are subtle details placed all along the way -- Akhtar’s script lights the fuse in the very first scene, and it burns throughout -- so we are filled with absolute dread by the time we approach the table. We know it’s going to be a disaster -- it cannot be anything but a disaster, everyone needs far more than anyone has the capacity to give -- and yet we are still surprised by the depths to which these characters quickly sink.
At the core of this inferno is Amir. His outspoken opposition to Islam comes from growing up in it, a special kind of renunciation that belongs only to once-true-believers. Everything is a struggle: he loves his family, even as he now stands apart from them; he loves his wife, even as her exhortations of the richness and brilliance of Islamic culture gall him; he loves his work, even as he must (at least, he seems to believe he must) work triple-time to renounce every cultural implication of his ethnicity.
Amir’s arc embodies the principle of Chekhov’s gun: in the first scene we are unsure about his lack of balance -- he swathed in privilege, bathed in adulation, able in his work: why is he so off-kilter? We soon see that he is the gun -- even as, tragically, no one else seems to -- and we know that at some point, he is going to fire. Amir is insistent on his otherness -- the play begins with a meditation on Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja; and Amir’s otherness is no less complex. This insistence is so strident as to be out-of-tune with everyone else: Emily, who knows much about Amir, is bewildered by it. We are as aware of the volcano he is holding back as his loved ones seem blissfully unaware.
The play elides heightened stakes with recognizable behavior: ambitious couples vie for control of the conversation, and recognize they are talking past each other; brilliant minds juggle two topics at a time, circling back to previous points because they don’t want to lose. Emily, overly familiar with Amir’s excoriation of the Koran, fact-checks him on textual analysis, and revels in exposing his blind spots.
The two couples expertly keep the ball in the air: Pittman lands every line with exceptional timing. Mol works well with what she is given. Radnor’s comedic strengths are on full display, even as he seems a bit overeager to connect his early moments with the looming disaster (but as he is sitting at the wheel of a linguistic Ferrari, no matter how heavy his foot, the engine is going to purr).
Even the passing notes of this script are well-polished jewels in their own right: Isaac’s meditations on painting -- when he doesn’t care about painting, in a moment when he could not care less about the actual content of his words -- nevertheless constitute brilliant artistic criticism. Kenneth Posner’s exceptionally clever lighting design -- making full use of John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set -- also deserves special attention.
Disgraced is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning script; it should be. It is a lasting monument to this moment in our culture. Some works serve to shake our awareness of the present -- to reorient, perhaps enhance, our perception. This will be a work we can show to future generations as a flawless testament to the irresolvable madness of our time.