BWW Review: DISGRACED Looks At The Prejudice That Simmers Under The Surface
DISGRACED is the 2013 Pulitzer Prize award-winning play that asks difficult questions about religion, assimilation and individuality. It is now in its Regional Premiere at Austin Playhouse. DISGRACED tells the story of Amir (J. Ben Wolfe), a successful Pakistani-American lawyer, whose life unravels after he lends his name to the cause of an imam accused of terrorism. When he and his artist wife Emily (Molly Karrasch) host an intimate dinner party, the social niceties that can disguise a person's prejudice soon dissolve when the evening escalates into increasingly brutal language exposing all the prejudice simmering underneath the veneer of civility.
Ayad Akhtar wrote this play as part of a seven-part series of works on Muslim-American identity. He clearly tries to push every hot button he can in this fascinating portrait of betrayal and shifting allegiances. It is when the button pushing becomes obvious that the script devolves into clichés. It is when that happens that the piece which has tried very hard to provoke winds up instead being merely puzzling.
DISGRACED sets up the main character as a man shaped by his family and the Western culture that he has fully embraced. Then, the playwright suddenly has the character prove to be the complete antithesis of what has been established without any justification. This is a character that has rejected his family's faith because of its anti-Semitism and how it regards women. Suddenly we're told he takes secret pleasure from world leaders discussing wiping Israel from existence. He concedes 9/11 was wrong but admits to feeling pride that Muslims fought back. When his wife cheats on him, he gets to act out the Quran's imperative to beat her. Even the dinner party guests are a set-up for guaranteed conflict with a Muslim: A Black woman and a Jewish man. It's all just a little too pat. Playwright Ayad Akhtar has a real talent for believable characters but the disagreements presented here are too polite and instead of shock when prejudice rears its ugly head we are left instead questioning. There's nothing that reads as phony about marital infidelity or having a co-worker leapfrog you on a partnership. It's just that none of it has any bearing on the weighty religious and cultural topics that the playwright has raised.
Although the script is problematic, director Don Toner has staged the piece beautifully and the characters always stay in the realm of the real and believable, even when it descends into acts of brutality. The Austin Playhouse has done a fine job of staging this piece. Mike Toner has built a warm and inviting set that reads upper East Side Manhattan.
The cast is fine throughout: Molly Karrasch is heart-breaking as Emily and J. Ben Wolfe is a commanding presence as Amir. Crystal Bird Caviel has an appealing warmth and intelligence as Jory and is the most internally consistent character because her character isn't asked to suddenly turn into someone entirely different. Solid supporting performances are delivered by Michael Miller as Isaac and Harold Fisch as Abe.
While DISGRACED only runs 80 minutes, it feels much longer. I hope the playwright starts listening to the fascinating characters he has created and stops making them jump through hoops. When that happens, he might be able to bring us a long play that feels short.
DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar
Running time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.
DISGRACED, produced by Austin Playhouse (6001 Airport Blvd, Austin, TX 78752.) January 15-31, 2016. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. Please be aware that only the South entrance to Highland is available to patrons. Please plan accordingly. Call (512) 476-0084 should you have any questions or for tickets.
Tickets are $24.
All student tickets are half-price.
$3 discount for Seniors 65 and up.
Group rates available