Local and national politics seem to be growing more and more fragmented, and at least around here, people – and theater companies – want to talk about it. Over the past few months, I have reviewed plays about members of the Jewish, Christian, gay, and Black communities, all wrestling with their identities in one way or another. It is an exciting trend to see so many theaters choosing plays intended to challenge and provoke their audiences in ways that feel immediately relevant, and it is exciting to see the Guthrie adding Muslim-American voices to this dialogue in their production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. Next to so many other excellent productions, though, I admit I was a bit disappointed this time around.
Disgraced takes place in an opulently high-ceilinged apartment owned by Amir, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, and his wife Emily, an artist. Amir has distanced himself from his Pakistani Muslim heritage to the point that a partner at his firm has given him a statue of Shiva as a gift. Emily, on the other hand, is enchanted by Islamic art and models her paintings on Islamic mosaic traditions. (There is a beautiful example of Emily’s work on their apartment wall; scenic designer James Youmans has done a wonderful job capturing both Emily’s artistic aesthetic and the minimalist perfection of an upscale New York lifestyle.)
When introduced to Amir and Emily, I expected the conflict to come from within their relationship, since their characters filled me with questions about the origin story of their marriage. Did Emily seek out a Muslim to marry for the same vaguely Orientalist reasons that she loves Islamic art? Or did her artistic inspirations come only after learning of her husband’s utter lack of appreciation for any part of the Muslim tradition? I also wondered why Amir broke from Islam in the first place – was it a purely pragmatic move to get ahead in his Jewish-dominated law firm, or was there a specific event that precipitated his change?
But the conflict in Disgraced doesn’t come from within the characters, and although the on-stage arguments get heated, the conflict doesn’t truly come from between the characters, either. The issues at stake in this play are about the position of Islam within society: how it is perceived by the press, colleagues, the art community, and various members of the Muslim community itself. And because the conversations so often center on external facts or issues, such as interpretations of Islamic law or conversations had off stage, the characters’ interpersonal relationships fail to truly crackle.
The result, for me, was a play where the characters are more interested in being right than in saving their marriages and friendships. Their arguments are interesting, but they are intellectual. Although Amir’s life ends up in shambles, as the play’s title suggests, I wasn’t convinced that his marriage (for instance) was worth saving in the first place.
I would attribute this issue more to the script, which leaves large chunks of the characters’ back stories unexplored, than to the acting – or perhaps the actors and director spent more time in the rehearsal room discussing the characters’ places in the world than their places in each others’ hearts.
Regardless, there were moments in all the actors’ individual performances that suggested depths that I wished had been more fully explored. For instance, Bhavesh Patel brings out interesting facets to Amir’s character, at once a consummate schmoozer and a man who is deeply anxious about the way he is perceived by the outside world. Caroline Kaplan plays Emily with the assurance of a woman who has not had to struggle hard to make her way in the world, and so it is not Emily but rather Amir’s colleague Jory, a Black woman, who provides a more interesting counterpoint to Amir’s struggles to advance in a predominantly white law firm.
Austene Van, who has been doing some amazing work recently, plays Jory with the poise and hard edges of a woman who has had to fight to get where she is, but she does not share Amir’s concerns about assimilating.
Akhtar’s script is all about putting these three in a room, along with Jory’s curator husband Isaac (whose interest in Emily may or may not have anything to do with her art), letting the alcohol flow, and seeing what happens when the characters’ truths all come pouring out. The disappointment is not in the level of the conflict – it is intense and well-paced by director Marcela Lorca – but in the types of revelations that seem to be most important.
Amir delivers a confession about his reaction to September 11 that startles his dinner guests but does little to deepen our understanding of why he so vehemently renounces his ethnic and religious heritage. Disgraced asks a number of interesting questions, but not the questions that its characters seem to be begging to be answered.
It is great to have so many theaters staging interesting, relevant plays. The downside of the trend, however, is that this kind of quantity raises the bar. There was a time not too long ago when we would have been lucky to have a major theater like the Guthrie putting on a play that dealt with identity politics at all. But now, we can set our sights on plays that are both politically provocative and deliver the kinds of deeply-drawn characters and stories that bring these conflicts out of the world of the abstract. Disgraced led to some good discussions on the way home from the theater, but its emotional impact fizzled where it should have flamed vividly into life.