by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater uses the stage to wrangle with important issues facing America in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced.”
A Muslim lawyer, Amir (Fajer Kaisi), and his Caucasian wife, Emily (Lisa Velten Smith), struggle with their identities when issues of race, religion and politics start popping up like dandelions in an untended garden.
As an artist, Emily has embraced the rich cultural heritage of Islamic art. Amir, however, has obfuscated his religion and his ethnicity to further his ambitions in a largely, Jewish law firm. Technically, he doesn’t lie; the region of Pakistan his father hails from was part of India when his dad was born.
Amir’s nephew, Abe (Justin Ahdoot), has embraced the faith. Emily convinces Amir to counsel Abe’s imam who is in a legal entanglement. The religious leader has been imprisoned for allegedly funding a terrorist group. He agrees to meet with the legal team representing the imam, even though he is a corporate lawyer with a specialty in mergers and acquisitions. Amir’s name is mentioned in a story about the case in the New York Times causing the firm to divest itself of a volatile asset, our downtrodden protagonist.
Things get even more complicated when Amir and Emily invite Isaac (Ryan McCarthy) and Jory (Nafeesa Monroe) into their home. Coincidentally, Isaac is an art dealer who can help Emily, and Jory is an up-and-coming lawyer under the same shingle as Amir. It also so happens that Isaac is Jewish and Jory is African American.
The article in the Times is a stick of dynamite at the dinner party. A few terse words and the fuse ignites.
Akhtar’s play takes on some prickly issues, such as Islamophobia, American greed, faith, and politics, but discusses them ad nauseam. Ironically, the characters fall into stereotypes. The black woman is always late for work, Abe begins wearing a kufi, and Amir has sublimated rage that bursts forth from his Sudanese Barakat cotton shirt.
Anne Mundell has designed the sets for similarly themed rooms at the Public such as “Art” and “God of Carnage,” and her “Disgraced” set is equally dazzling. It is an opulent New York apartment on the Upper West Side filled with artful flourishes. There is art on the wall that is discussed in the play, and the piece Mundell chose perfectly encapsulates every word in the dialogue.
The play won 2013 Pulitizer Prize for Drama and it dives deep into some forbidden topics, though, Akhtar’s script is equally compelling and frustrating. There’s a handy reference guide to Islamic people and places that are mentioned in the script, but the play has dozens of references to art, culture, religion and politics. Just when you think it’s too hard to keep up with the glossary, a “South Park” reference gets tossed in for the groundlings.
The actors are technically efficient, but “Disgraced” lacks a little grace. It seemed a little flat with the exception of some fine performances by McCarthy and Monroe.
Monroe gets some of the best lines, and executes them flawlessly. Though, she accomplished a lot of nuance with body language and small gestures when she wasn’t doling out bon mots. It’s a joy to watch her strutting across the stage.
The ending of the play is like the unseen pork dish at the aforementioned dinner party, undercooked. After an intense act of marital violence is perpetrated, the denouement seemed unsettled. But like any piece of fine art, “Disgraced” will spark some terrific conversations. Not all of those conversations will be comfortable, but they will all be important.
In this particular election cycle, “Disgraced” seems to be more relevant than ever.
(“Disgraced” runs from March 10 to April 10 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here)