- COURTESY OF ROB STRONG
- Amar Srivastava and Olivia Gilliatt
There's no such thing as an American whose identity can't be shoved into a category. In Disgraced, playwright Ayad Akhtar gathers two Pakistani Americans, an African American, a Jewish American, and a WASP whose immigrant heritage no longer sticks out. The Northern Stage production maps the minefield of cultural assimilation with an emphasis on what's polarizing about categories, both to the observer and the observed.
Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is currently one of the most frequently performed contemporary plays. Its subject couldn't be more important, which is why the artistic emptiness of Disgraced is such a disappointment.
Akhtar gets the structure for tension just right, setting conflicting forces at work on characters with distinct cultural identities. But he gives them little inner life and, in this production, the actors don't supply it either. It's a play that makes you think, but it doesn't make you feel. On a topic like this, perhaps thinking is enough.
Set in a luxurious Manhattan apartment a decade after 9/11, the story features people who've achieved significant worldly success. Do such accomplishments require them to renounce their cultural identities as capitalism homogenizes them?
Amir Kapoor (Amar Srivastava) has edited his own narrative just short of dishonesty. He's dropped his Pakistani family name for an Indian one and denounces the extremes of Islam. He seems to distance himself from his cultural roots as he seeks partnership in a top mergers-and-acquisitions law firm.
When his nephew urges him to become involved in the defense of an imam accused of raising money for terrorism, Amir tries to straddle his divided allegiances. He appears at the trial unofficially but draws publicity to his law firm — attention that the partners consider unwelcome.
Amir is intently focused on professional success. His Caucasian wife, Emily (Olivia Gilliatt), is steadily moving her painting career forward after receiving favorable reviews. Amir's nephew (Kanwar Singh) changed his name to blend in but is tugged back to his Muslim heritage. Isaac (Sid Solomon), a curator at the Whitney, evaluates Emily's work for inclusion in a forthcoming exhibition, potentially a major career milestone for her. Isaac's wife, Jory (Dan'yelle Williamson), is Amir's colleague at the firm, on the same partnership track despite the obstacles she faces as an African American woman.
These aspirations are fertile ground for theater. Akhtar brings the two couples together for dinner, with enough alcohol to justify confrontations, speeches and insults.
Isaac is critical of Israel's military extremes; Amir denounces the Koran's expression of gender inequality. This talk sounds enlightened, especially when Emily chimes in to defend Islamic culture and Jory appears to be living proof that a black woman can make a run at a law firm's glass ceiling.
Then, as strong opinions become attacks, civility dissolves. The four share a sense of wealth and privilege but discover that a taste for fine living is not a unifying principle bigger than their cultural differences. Everyone bristles, but Amir is the prickliest of all, and a disturbing secret is revealed.
The play's potential to show the tension between competing aspects of identity is undermined by the superficial nature of the characters. They're abstractions, not people struggling to solve central questions about their existence.
Director Carol Dunne moves the action forward crisply in 75 minutes, and the play grips attention from start to finish. By emphasizing the plot's bombshells, Dunne keeps the actors focused on the discomfort of meeting social expectations while burying atavistic impulses.
In this production, director and actors rely on the lines and actions to tell the story without investigating character complexities that drive behavior. The show is sometimes closer to an earnest essay than a work of theater. One could argue that simply voicing Akhtar's banter, rationalizations, jabs and counterattacks keeps attention on the words themselves and encourages us to see the very archetypes to which we reduce others.
That approach may work for some viewers, but words without emotional depth don't convey characters' conflicts fully, even if they tell the story. And the fast pace, while energizing, comes at a cost. The sense of a passage of time, or even the effect of events on the characters, is lost. Speedy exchanges can leave out the moment when a thought registers or an emotion flares.
Bill Clarke's apartment set evokes the majesty of Manhattan wealth with restrained emptiness. A massive cornice crowns the creamy walls, and plaster filigree and arched windows above the doorways reflect the occupants' wealth and taste. Lighting by Dan Kotlowitz keeps the time of day and season a subtle presence and carries some of the storytelling in a key scene.
The program includes a director's note from Dunne with the disclaimer that the play has been criticized by Muslim Americans for portraying a Muslim man's negative side. But why should that be perilous for artists? By the logic of the complaint, characters in stories are no longer individuals but statements about vast groups.
Akhtar's play doesn't achieve rich characterization, and it's legitimate to note that his characters are clichés. They're not, however, clichés designed to condemn, but failures of artistic imagination.
The play falls short, at least in this production, in the outbursts of pride and anger. Thursday's preview audience quietly, obediently gasped when a racial insult was spoken, when spit flew, when a blow was struck. All of us saw the signal that a character had gone too far. What we didn't see was a character under such pressure that he had no choice.
By portraying people reconciling competing claims on their identities, Disgraced has a dazzling premise. It's not fully realized, but the questions raised are vital ones.