Arizona Theater Company’s powerful production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced” starts gently. It lulls you into thinking there will be smart banter, sharp wit, and gentle disagreements.
But don’t get too comfortable.
Shortly after the 85-minute play begins, you can sense the temperature rising. Tensions begin to build. And build. An explosion is inevitable.
Ayad Akhtar’s play does not shy away from topics that these days cause an obscene amount of frenzied hate: Islam. Muslims. And Islam and Muslims in America.
He takes a sharp look at deep-seated prejudices, the conflicts of culture and faith and, especially, the price paid for betraying who you are.
At the center of the story is Amir, a successful corporate lawyer whose parents came from Pakistan, though he was born in the states. Amir long ago abandoned his Islamic faith, told his employers his parents were born in India, and has stuffed any cultural identity he once had.
His wife, Emily, is a nice WASPish woman and an up-and-coming artist whose work is inspired by Islamic themes. She is much more willing to explore his heritage than he is.
When Amir’s nephew Abe — he changed his name from Hussein — asks him to help an imam who has been accused of raising money for Hamas, Amir balks, but eventually lends some tepid support.
Of course, it backfires. The primarily Jewish partners at his law firm begin to question him and his background. He senses that the American dream he has so meticulously plotted is evaporating.
It all comes to a head when Isaac, the curator who has accepted some of Emily’s work into a show at the Whitney, and his wife, Jory, join Amir and Emily for dinner at their upscale Manhattan apartment (John Ezell designed an enviable set). Isaac is Jewish; Jory, a lawyer who works in the same firm as Amir, is black.
Scotch is downed, the conversation heats up. More Scotch, higher heat. Discussions around Islam, Sept. 11, Muslims, and the Qur’an get things boiling, and then they boil over.
It makes for an unpleasant dinner — but fascinating theater.
Akhtar’s dialogue flows with rhythm and smarts and is delivered with nuance by a cast headed by Elijah Alexander as a tall, handsome and volatile Amir. He makes Amir’s frustration and rage palpable, but still allows the character to be sympathetic. Though Allison Jean White is a delicate beauty, she never allows her witty Emily to wither.
A deep-voiced Richard Baird nicely evolves from a seemingly mild-mannered Isaac to a man capable of intense anger and betrayal. Nicole Lewis’ Jory is smart and an effective mediator between the warring factions at the table. Vanditt Bhatt makes Abe’s transition from a fully assimilated American to one who embraces Islam with a fervor completely understandable.
David Ira Goldstein knows how to build tension and bring clarity to a play that’s full of fast and furious dialogue. Goldstein’s knowing direction and a cast that understands nuance made “Disgraced” a play that challenges the audience to reflect.
Of course, they had some potent material to work with.
The playwright never becomes didactic — Akhtar isn’t trying to teach us lessons about religion or culture. While bigotry is central, he isn’t wagging his finger at us. What comes across most strongly is the powerful conflict between who we are and who we want to be, the futility of attempting to face a future without understanding the past. And of the tragedy that befalls all of us when we close our minds, make harsh and unfair judgments, and then act on them.
“Disgraced” can be contrived at times. But the combination of language, ideas and performances transcend that. It’s a play that sticks with you and demands you do a bit of soul searching.