BWW Review: DISGRACED Brings Timely Sparks to the Fulton Stage
It has the potential thesis of a bad joke: A Muslim, a Jew, a WASP, and an African American walk into a bar and... . If life is all a giant joke, however, DISGRACED, the Pulitzer-winning play by Ayad Akhtar, only illustrates that life increasingly has become more of a surreal one since the show opened on Broadway in 2011. It isn't a matter of "guess who's coming to dinner," but "guess what your friends are really thinking while they're eating."
On stage at the Fulton Theatre as part of the Ellen Arnold Groff Studio Series, Akhtar's explosive play starts off as part of the American Dream. Amir, played by Abhi Katyal, is the sort to whom Americans point as a success story. His parents came over from India (in an area now part of Pakistan), he went to school, became a lawyer, and now has a cushy upper-story Manhattan apartment, a trophy wife who's a pretty blonde artist, and a pair of best friends. They're a successful couple as well; she's an African American attorney at Amir's firm and her husband is a Jewish art dealer who's agenting for Amir's wife, Emily. Why wouldn't they all have dinner at Amir and Emily's one night? What could be more wholesome?
As director Marc Robin and his well-chosen cast prove, nothing could be a bigger problem. Katyal is right on point as Amir, a very secular, pork-eating Muslim who tries to avoid trouble by having changed his last name to a more generic Indian one. He's not as much self-hating as trying to "pass," just as, before the Civil Rights era, many light-skinned African Americans passed themselves off as white. Katyal feels natural in the role, so integrated with his part as if to convey to an audience that he's not acting at all, that Amir is standing in front of the audience being himself.
Fulton veteran Liz Shivener plays Emily, the talented, lovely artist wife who wishes Amir would be more Muslim, though she doesn't mind making pork tenderloin for dinner; interestingly, while Amir isn't that fascinated with his religion, Emily nearly fetishizes it. She's read the Koran. She's studied Islamic art up close, and she uses it as the inspiration for her work. Did Amir marry her because she's a white non-Muslim? Did she marry him because he is Muslim? Shivener's intense portrayal helps leave the basis of their complicated relationship in doubt.
Erinn Holmes plays Jory, Amir's co-worker, who's hiding a secret about their jobs at their law firm. Fulton regular Andrew Kindig is her husband Isaac, the art dealer, who's not an observant Jew but who manages to find some knee-jerk Jewish reflexes inside when pushed. He's also hiding a few secrets from his wife.
The catalyst for everything is Amir's nephew, Abe (Zal Owen), a young Muslim who wants his uncle to provide some legal services to a local imam who's in prison. Emily thinks Amir should help out to connect to his religion - the last thing he wants to do. Abe is so intense, and Emily so fascinated, that neither thinks this innocent assistance to a clergyman will have any effect on their universe, and that Amir's predictions of doom are ridiculous. Perhaps he's just being paranoid. It's nothing that could become an issue at dinner with friends, is it?
It's evident when watching that there's a reason Akhtar won a Pulitzer for drama with DISGRACED. It's taut, well-written, surprisingly suspenseful, and when it explodes, as it does, it takes everything and the audience with it as well. But a great script means nothing until it's brought alive by the right actors, at which this production shines. Katyal is convincing enough as Amir that you'd feel safe walking up and asking him a legal question at a party. Shivener's Emily is both intense and sexually charged, and though she appears to focus these on her art, they're also focused elsewhere; Shivener walks a delicate tightrope of whether she loves Amir because he's Amir, or if she desires him because he is Other. Holmes is flawless as a polished professional woman who's been trained to observe, to sit on her own emotions and thoughts in order to carry out a job, and who suddenly discovers that she doesn't know when to speak on her own any more. Kindig, whose parts are usually more comic, has dramatic acting chops not normally seen on the Fulton stage, and it's a joy to see him in a serious role. Owen's part as Amir's nephew is the smallest, but Owen keeps him present, engaged, and a challenge to Amir's world view.
DISGRACED, a play about our responses to the Muslims among us, and about how Muslims view themselves living in a secular, multi-religious world was timely when it first opened on Broadway, ten years after 9/11 and referencing New Yorkers' feelings about the events of 9/11. However, in these days of discussing immigration restriction on primarily-Muslim countries, in a time when non-citizen residents are afraid to leave the US for fear they won't be allowed to return, it's even more timely than when written and is likely to touch raw nerves for people on all sides of the issues... which is exactly why it should be seen. This is the play you didn't know you needed to see, and a play like this is precisely why theatre exists. Theatre is intended to be challenging, to provoke, to be eye-opening. It's supposed to make an audience feel. At this time, DISGRACED does every one of these things, and brilliantly.
Leave the kids at home for this one, but share with them what you think and feel because you were there to see it. This is a stunner. At the Fulton through March 12. Visit thefulton.org for tickets and information.