Ever since earning plaudits for his play “Disgraced” during its runs both off Broadway and then on Broadway, not to mention winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar has seen his play become one of the most produced in regional theaters across the country. As produced at McCarter Theater, in association with the Guthrie Theater and Milwaukee Repertory Theater, “Disgraced” continues, even after my having seen it now twice, to affect me as an intellectually stimulating experience and as an emotionally charged consideration/confrontation of familial, racial, cultural, and political issues, all of which seem to be defining a good portion of our daily lives.
That’s a lot of baggage for one play, but it does take a hard and uncompromising look at how easy it is for well-educated, socially sophisticated, politically savvy people to lose their cool and their sense of perspective when it comes to matters concerning religious beliefs, social standing, and cultural identity. Add a little sexual impropriety and you’ve got a riveting play.
If I have some quibbles about the embellishments that the otherwise excellent director Marcela Lorca has imposed on the staging, they don’t detract from the play’s overall impact. These are the vague and shadowing movements of characters who appear but do not interfere as segues from one scene to the next. It’s a visually pretentious effect whose purpose and meaning escaped me. An enhancement that did work was the unsettling and jazzy underscoring composed by Sanford Moore.
It is the play and the superb players that count, and they are a perfect fit. Amir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a successful Pakistani-American lawyer and his adoring white American wife, Emily (Caroline Kaplan), who is also receiving recognition as a fine artist, appear to be deeply in love and in complete harmony as a couple when we first see them on Saturday morning in their Upper East Side New York apartment (smartly designed by James Youmans). She is sketching a portrait of him, inspired by a portrait of a slave by Velasquez. As he stands nattily dressed from the waist up — below he has on only his boxer shorts — it is clear by their chatter and show of affection that their racial divide has not been a divide. It has, in fact, proven a catalyst and an inspiration to Emily, whose recent paintings have been notable and noticed for their embrace of ancient Islamic tradition and design.
Things are destined to get out of hand, however, when they are visited by Amir’s Pakistani-born nephew, Abe (Adit Dileep), and later that evening when two business colleagues — Isaac (Kevin Isola), a Jewish art curator from the Whitney, and his African-American wife, Jory (Austene Van), a lawyer who works with Amir for the same firm — come for dinner. Here is where, as in many a good play, people are seen moving characteristically from the rational to the irrational when faced with the need to either defend or refute ingrained beliefs. It takes the challenge one step farther and in a way that makes us see how a group of relatively high-minded, purportedly open-minded people can’t see or avoid the pitfalls that inevitably come with being right and/or righteous.
“Disgraced” is admirable for the way it doesn’t shy away from topics and issues that we are all taught to avoid in polite company. Though not quite on the same level as the hyperbolic histrionics that fuel “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” it is nevertheless filled with adrenaline-pumping theatrics that go quickly to the heart of what’s at stake.
At stake for Amir is how to maintain his guarded image of himself while not disowning his Pakistani roots. Fundamental to his view of “intelligence,” however, is his rejection of the Muslim faith, certainly the best way to survive in the current political, professional, and social climate, specifically to secure his future with the law firm whose two senior partners are Jewish.
Though he is adamant about not complying with his nephew’s plea to help an imprisoned Imam, Amir relents to Emily’s urging and goes to the prison, where his presence is noted by the press and subsequently viewed unfavorably the law firm. The strain of Amir’s impulsive decision to please Emily inevitably grows into rage when he begins to sense that his future has been compromised by his wife’s liberal-mindedness.
Emotions begin to spiral of control at the dinner party, presumably an opportunity for Isaac to confirm that he will mount an exhibition of Emily’s paintings. On a darker note, Jory, who was originally mentored by Amir but is now a rival, is delegated to unleash some jarring news. But that is only one of the explosive revelations of a more personal nature that erupt with increasing velocity. Watching all hell break loose in only 80 minutes with no intermission allows us to consider and reconsider, as the play progresses to its stunning conclusion, the way good intentions and good deeds often turn sour.
All five of the provocateurs are worthy of being seen as identity-challenged. Ebrahimzadeh is terrific as the fast-talking, upwardly mobile Amir whose fevered opportunism is as much a motivation as is his fervent secularism. Kaplan is impressive as Emily, the well-meaning, blindly liberal, (from my perspective: naive and short-sighted) wife.
Isola makes a strong impression as Isaac, who ultimately has to work as hard to define himself as do the others, especially the excellent Van as the African-American who is now unapologetically climbing up the corporate latter. Fervent intensity marks Dileep’s fine performance as Abe, whose allegiances are as vehemently expressed as his real name Hussein is conveniently suppressed. I wonder if you will see a more powerful or provocative play this year at any theater.
Disgraced, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through October 30, Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m., $25 to $80.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.