Disgraced at the Lyceum Theatre
Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
Lyceum Theatre, Broadway, 149 W. 45th St, New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan on December 13, 2014
Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama by the popular new playwright Ayad Akhtar, is an expert “Issue Play,” a work that takes current, provocative concerns and problems and distills them into a clear and succinct dramatic tale. In 90 minutes, this piece, which transferred from Off-Broadway to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, tackles the clash of ancient Islam and modern Westernism, illustrating it through the story of a contemporary Arabic man in New York caught between the two belief systems. The brevity and conciseness of its storytelling, the sharp, even slick elucidation of its important, complicated topic, makes it effective but, finally, frustrating.
Successful, ambitious Manhattan lawyer Amir (Hari Dhillon), Pakistani by birth, is a self-declared “apostate” from Islam, having rejected the teachings of the Koran with which he was brought up. Married to a beautiful blond American wife, artist Emily (Gretchen Mol), who herself admires the ancient work of Islamic artists and is reinterpreting them in her most recent show, Amir turns down the plea of his nephew Abe (who has Americanized his original Muslim name) to represent a controversial Imam suspected of links to terrorism. Viewed from the outside, Amir’s life is a 21st-century American success story, but underneath he is jittery and perturbed. Amir resents his wife’s upcoming Islamic art show and reluctantly poses as a Moor for her tribute to a Velasquez painting. He worries about being linked to the Imam, and wants to become a partner at his firm, which, specializing in mergers and acquisitions was founded and is run by Jewish men.
The main action of the play revolves around a dinner party thrown by Emily and Amir, with guests her art dealer Isaac, himself Jewish, and Isaac’s wife Jory, an African-American woman lawyer at Amir’s firm. But Amir is bothered by an article in the New York Times that quotes him in regard to the Imam’s case; he is certain people will tie him to the Imam, although he is not the prelate’s lawyer. At the firm, the founders have become discomfited by the knowledge that Amir fudged his background on company bios, claiming his father was Indian, not Pakistani, even though the country was officially India at his father’s birth. At the party, Amir, drinking heavily, gets into a discussion about Islam, which escalates into an argument: he derides the religion, quoting authoritarian passages from the Koran, some involving the domination of women by men; Isaac and Emily defend Islam as reputable, claiming it has been high jacked by extremists. When Amir, losing control, admits that he felt a secret pride in the attacks on 9-11, he and Isaac excoriate each other. Secrets are revealed: Emily and Isaac have been lovers; Jory has been given a partnership over Amir, who has been deemed by the founders untrustworthy. The party ends in rancor. When Amir is left alone with Emily, his poisonous religious upbringing rears its head, and he beats her for her infidelity. The marriage, and Amir’s American life, unravels.
Disgraced is nothing if not tight in its construction and presentation. The opening set-up featuring Amir and Emily is a breeze, with exposition thrown out curtly. Plotting is admirably intricate and believable, with the facts of the Imam’s predicament, Amir’s family background and the power-struggle within his law firm particularly well thought-out. Amir’s inner struggle has audacity and intelligence; there is courage in Amir’s arguments about Islam with Emily and, later, Isaac. Director Kimberly Senior keeps the pace and movement excellently taut and tense (although the tendency to upstage actors, common in plays these days—perhaps as a way to fight the traditional manner of staging, now seen as stodgy—hurls many of Amir’s exclamations into the back wall.) There is energetic conflict between Amir and Isaac, then Emily and Isaac, and finally Amir and Emily. Certainly, the fact that the play presents its issues on mainstream Broadway from an Islamic point of view, rather than the traditional Western one, sets it apart, and this unusual, intriguing take deepens its value. Throughout, the play is flashy, fast, and involving.
But it might have been a lot more. An Issue Play is a limited play. Disgraced suffers from the blight of new American theater, often referred to in these theater reviews: the 90-minute rush, the apparent need to apologize to the audience for making it sit in a seat near other people and concentrate on actors using a lot of words in a story about difficult subjects. You can’t blame the playwright; one assumes producers are the force behind this edited manner of theater, intended to keep spectators from fleeing. And who knows, maybe they’re right—the resistant audience has its own culpability.
Yes, the Lyceum is an old venue, albeit a beautiful one, built in 1903, and yes, you are squished uncomfortably into those seats; but do you really need “vendors” hawking wine and chips through the aisles before the show? Does the show have to be so short and clipped as to make the characters seem like stick figures, and the story like an outline? Do we need to race to the finish so devotedly that we stifle, obscure, or even negate the play’s best aspects, preventing it from becoming a legitimately great work?
The answer, it seems, is Yes, because that’s what happens. Amir and Emily’s relationship, her secret past with Isaac, Jory’s activities at the law firm, most elements of Amir’s work and family history, are flung at us with machine-gun speed; we enter the Land of Pronouncements, inhabited by Prototypes: Arab Man, Jewish Man, White Woman, Black Woman. Because we move from A to Z, without filling in the rest, the audience doesn’t get to know and care for these people and keeps them at arm’s-length. They end up cardboard cut-outs, and when the time comes to knock them down, it takes just a breath of air.
The thinness of the material soon reveals its inner workings; we see through the talk to the skeleton and recognize Amir’s detestation of Islam’s treatment of Jews and women as a blatant warning that he will take on these traits before long. We doubt the coincidence of Jory being both married to Isaac and working with Amir, and are suspicious of the convenient discovery of Isaac and Emily’s kiss by the other two players. All plays have signposts, flukes, and tip-offs, but the best cover them with specific, varied interaction and depths of relationship and emotion. Without a fuller depiction of the characters, without the patience to develop complexities and detail, the audience stingingly feels the manipulation.
Of course, this dinner party is primed for a blow-up, a la plays from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to God of Carnage, and it doesn’t take long; they don’t even get past the hors d’oeuvres. Plus, there’s an unsatisfying last scene, wherein nephew Abe (who by then has changed his name back to the original Arabic) offers a fervent speech about how it is the Westerners, “disgracing” Muslims by taking their lands in war, destroying their culture and humiliating the people, who have brought about the current calamitous situation between Middle East and West; and wife Emily’s complete renunciation of her husband after he hits her. This is something of a groveling “fair-minded” conclusion: seeming to give credence to the spurious theory of America’s responsibility for the 9-11 attack, as well as taking from Amir his undaunted, even heroic denouncement of Islam, leaving him as the more simplistic, easier-to-swallow shattered abusive husband. However, even this might have been tolerable, if the play had taken its time, and allowed its characters to truly live and breathe.
The tremendously attractive actors try hard to make more out of their characters than what is on the page. Josh Radnor uses sly phrasing and offbeat physicality to bring verve to Isaac. (Although it must be said that the slimness of the writing leaves us with the sinking feeling that Isaac’s nature as a dweeb and slime bag is the natural, unavoidable result of his Jewishness.) Gretchen Mol can only be described as a Complete Babe and her beauty is a core part of her character: Emily, despite, or in addition to her career as an artist, is also a Trophy Wife, and, while the play skirts this issue rather timidly in the dialogue, and Mol has trouble getting across the sophistication of her character’s art acumen, her very presence clarifies the role’s meaning in the story. The also-gorgeous Karen Pittman gives authority and style to the most underwritten role of lawyer Jory. In the smaller role of Abe, with tough lines to say, Danny Ashok is sincere and terrific. Hari Dhillon as lead Amir has a smooth masculine dynamism and his likeability does the production a big favor: the audience can’t hate Amir, and that provides the show with an opening to make its points.
Disgraced is really skillful and enjoyable and, as a testament to the talent here, playwright Ayad Akhtar has plays all over New York City: The Who & The What was recently at Lincoln Center, and The Invisible Hand is soon opening at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop. But its unwavering focus on the issues, the hasty, truncated nature of the story and its characters, keep Disgraced from being special. It does something else, too, more regrettable: it stops us from grasping and feeling in our bones that wider, fundamental, crucial truth: beneath the religion, the accents and language, the Bible and the Koran, whether we are from the desert or the streets of New York, whether we love or hate each other, we are all related. We are all Human Beings.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He recently directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and is currently directing a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, to be presented in February, 2015, at the Dramatist Guild.
Scott Klavan’s Website