BWW Review: Gasps All Around at Mirvish's DISGRACED
A lesson in what not to say at a dinner party, Mirvish's presentation of Ayad Akhtar's DISGRACED is tense and unsettling. Originally a production from the Hope and Hell Theatre Company, director Robert Ross Parker discusses the play as having "the power to make us uncomfortable." Certainly true. As the play dove into controversial discussions of identity politics, gasps were audible all around.
DISGRACED takes place in the upscale New York living room of Amir (Raoul Bhaneja) and Emily (Birgitte Solem). Amir is a successful lawyer competing for partnership in a mostly-Jewish law firm and Emily is an artist dabbling in the influence of early-Islamic art. We quickly learn that Amir was born a Muslim, but denounced the religion, becoming an apostate. Amir feels confident in his choice to distance himself from his upbringing, stating "you can hide your religion if you have to" - Amir changed his name and lied to his firm about his cultural background.
Emily and Amir's nephew, Abe (Ali Momen), persuade Amir to consult on the case of a wrongly convicted suspected terrorist. The New York Times runs a story mentioning Amir by name and tagging his law firm as a sympathizer of the accused. From that point everything changes. Amir's bosses get suspicious, tempers flare at home and a dinner party with their friends Isaac (Alex Poch-Goldin) and Jory (Karen Glave) is stuck in the middle of it all.
DISGRACED will have your head spinning. For over 80 minutes, you are stuck in your seat as the ensemble dives head first into topics most of us would rather avoid - Islam, Israel/Palestine, adultery and racism. But being stuck in your seat means that you are forced to listen. As a listener, not expected to engage or defend myself, I found that I was more open to empathizing with different points of view. The play isn't excellent, but it does its job in provoking debate and conversation.
Raoul Bhaneja is responsible for igniting most of the explosive drama on stage. It is interesting to watch Bhaneja begin in a place of internal emotional struggle with Amir, gradually falling apart under the stress (alcohol increases the rate at which this happens), until Amir becomes erratic, aggressive and violent. Solem's portrayal of Emily is virtuous and optimistic, the perfect setup for her unexpected bombshell admission near the end of the play.
As the somewhat stable characters, Glave and Poch-Goldin aren't excluded from the drama. Glave's cool and collected disposition shifts on a dime, Glave seeming to grow taller as she commands the stage in a rage. Poch-Goldin on the other hand, becomes introverted in conflict, ditching his playful banter.
Robert Ross Parker creates an apocalyptic dinner party brewing with tension and anxiety through his direction, which is like the slow burn of a long fuse making its way to a pile of explosives. Or better yet, like a game of Jenga - each layer adding more weight until everything comes crashing down. It reminded me of the hilarious rising action in Noel Coward's Present Laughter - although with more discomfort than comedy.
DISGRACED will leave you speechless, you might even gasp - but you definitely won't be able to stop talking about it.
DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar, is presented by Mirvish through November 26, 2017 at the Panasonic Theatre.
For more info and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/disgraced
Photo credit: Karen Glave and Raoul Bhaneja in DISGRACED. Photo by: Cylla von Tiedemann