Review: “Disgraced”

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. through Oct. 18.
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. through Oct. 18.

RECOMMENDED
Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Oct. 25
Tickets: $25-$82
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Professional ambition trumps personal relationships in “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about affluent New Yorkers grappling with issues of ethnicity, religiosity, assimilation, preconceptions, and prejudice. The Goodman Theatre’s production is provocative intellectually but not as emotionally engaging as it could—or should—be.

This is the fourth time Kimberly Senior has directed the play, starting with the world premiere at American Theatre Company on the North Side in 2012. It went on to Lincoln Center Theater’s LTC3 in New York later that year and then, after winning the Pulitzer, to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre for an Oct. 2014-March 2015 run. The Goodman show uses the design from Broadway, including John Lee Beatty’s fab set of an Upper East Side apartment (with automated scene changes), but the cast is different. However, Behzad Dabu is returning from the world premiere in the pivotal role of Abe, the central character’s increasingly radicalized nephew.
The play has changed a lot since its inception, though I admit I didn’t see previous versions. The characters have aged into their early forties, which raises the stakes, according to Senior. A fourth scene has been added (between scenes one and three), and the ending is different. But the whole thing still clocks in at 82 minutes.

Frankly, I was glad it wasn’t any longer. While the hot-button issues are complex and interesting, the structure is schematic, and the idea of seemingly civilized people behaving badly, especially once their inhibitions are reduced by alcohol, isn’t exactly new.

Akhtar stacks the deck by creating characters who, because of their backgrounds, are bound to clash if their expected inner feelings come out, and who all want something that involves at least one of the others. Self-absorbed and imbued with a sense of entitlement, coupled in at least one case with self-loathing, they’re unpleasant enough that spending time with them—before, during, and after a disastrous dinner party—becomes irritating rather than inspiring sympathy or empathy.

At the center is Amir Kapoor ((Bernard White), a lapsed Muslim of Pakistani descent who has changed his last name to make it sound more Indian, is a successful mergers and acquisitions lawyer, and wears expensive clothes including $600 shirts. His ambition is to make partner in the Jewish-run law firm where he’s worked for many years. We first see him with his pants off, being painted in the style of Diego Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” (the artist’s assistant and possibly slave), by his petite blond Caucasian wife, Emily (Nisi Sturgis). This portrait, an important image, is a departure for her, because most of her colorful, geometric paintings (one hangs on the foyer wall) showcase a passion for Islamic art and culture not shared by her husband, though her understanding of it is open to question.
Emily is a candidate for inclusion in a show being mounted by Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), a Jewish-American art dealer, so she’s eagerly courting his favor. She invites him over to see her work; he likes it, and the dinner party is to celebrate once he’s selected several paintings for the show. Isaac comes with his wife, Jory (Zakiya Young), a self-assured African American woman who just happens to work for the same firm as Amir and also is vying for a partnership. Her first words are a clue to the nature of her marriage, as she condescendingly admonishes her husband not to eat any bread at dinner. The cracks in Amir and Emily’s marriage emerge more slowly.

The catalyst for the conflict that escalates rather quickly is Emily’s request to Amir, prompted by Abe, who has Americanized his name but maintains his Muslim religion, to help defend an imam who has been accused of using his organization’s funds to support terrorist causes. Amir, who refers to the Qur’an as “one long hate mail,” doesn’t want to but agrees to see the man to please his wife. When the New York Times quotes him, making him sound like a supporter, his firm’s founders get wind of it, and Amir’s professional aspirations go out the window.

The downward spiral is fueled not just by the increasingly heated arguments at the dinner party (during which lots of Scotch is consumed but no dinner is eaten, including the pork Emily has made that neither Amir nor Isaac would eat if they were observant), but also by a series of personal betrayals that are revealed, leading to an act of violence.

Without revealing the details, these show the characters’ true colors, and they aren’t pretty. In the case of Amir, his enraged behavior fits the playwright’s set up, complete with irony considering his view of Islam, but I found it somewhat implausible and explicable only because he’s presumably drunk at the time.

While the performances generally are strong, Dabu’s Abe is the most believable, perhaps because his growing dogmatism, however odious, seems to flow so naturally from his personality. Too often the others are so wrapped up in justifying their positions that it’s hard to buy them as real human beings. Then, again, that may be because I find the characters distasteful.
Still, “Disgraced” is worth seeing because it should provoke some good discussions. My recommendation: Have them over coffee, tea, or lemonade rather than booze.