BWW Review: DISGRACED at Portland Stage Company
Ayad Akhtar's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced," currently in a regional run at the Portland Stage Company, is one of those plays that makes you want to hear every word, even as you kind of wish you weren't hearing every word.
Critical standbys such as "powerful" and "riveting" barely do justice to the strength of this play. Digging deep into cutting edge issues of culture and identity in a post-9/11 world, the work movingly reveals the complexity and urgency of the questions it raises. The Portland Stage production, perhaps its finest recent effort, delivers it all like a punch to the conscience in just under 90 minutes.
Amir is an affluent Pakistani-American lawyer who has taken pains to deny and conceal his Muslim heritage. Deny because he has doubts about the centuries-old religion's basic tenets and conceal because he feels that the Islamophobia all around him could be a threat to his promising career.
His artist wife Emily is a WASP who has found inspiration in Islamic art and hopes to ride its influence to a major show at the Whitney Museum. She fatefully encourages Amir to participate in the defense of an imam who Amir's immigrant nephew Abe believes is wrongly accused of supporting terrorism.
The action heats quickly after Amir reveals he has been questioned about his background by his firm's senior partners. He's definitely on edge when curator Isaac and his wife Jory, an African-American and colleague of Amir, arrive for a dinner to celebrate Emily's paintings being selected by Isaac for a big show.
The conversation gets increasingly tense between Amir and Isaac, who is Jewish, as issues of racial profiling and primary allegiances take center stage. Theological points devolve into insults beginning with assertions about "You people..." The women try to cool things down while getting in a few verbal licks of their own.
Things get shockingly and tragically real by the close. Crucial questions remain unanswered while the relationships between the characters are radically changed.
Alex Purcell is both touching and obnoxious as his Amir unravels the weave of half-truths which have sustained him. He effectively articulates his character's ambivalence and growing anger not only through the author's sometimes gasp-inducing dialogue but through an in-your-face performance, under the direction of Christopher Grabowski.
Roya Shanks' Emily protects her ambition by side-stepping those uncomfortable truths with which her husband must deal. Shanks sets up her character's fate well by emphasizing her calculated avoidance of all that doesn't suit her vision.
Jonas Cohen has his Isaac believably bristle at Amir's apparent "self-loathing" while subtly revealing his own prejudice and duplicity. And Robyn Payne, as Jory, powers her character like a courtroom and cultural veteran who knows how these fights can end.
Salar Ardebelli brings a street-level stance and fervor to his Abe.
The set by Anita Stewart and costumes by Kenisha Kelly establish the Upper East Side status and polite, multi-cultural refinement that the author's critical gaze will upend.
A surprise twist or two, and even a laugh here and there, round out this remarkable work, well-served by this production.
Portland Stage Company
25A Forest Ave
Continues through May 21
Photo by Aaron Flacke/Courtesy Portland Stage