Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Disgraced,” has finally arrived in Los Angeles. It was the most produced play in America last season. Witty and timely it pulls no punches in the arena of American racial relations or the battleground called marriage and it entertains. Hard to beat.
The terrain is rocky and Akhtar does not tiptoe lightly. It is set in the ever-so-tasteful, pale dove grey, Manhattan apartment of Amir (Hari Dhillon) and Emily (Emily Swallow). He is a secular Muslim of Pakistani descent and an associate in a Jewish law firm; she is a classic American blond, an artist fascinated by the rich history of Islamic art. They are the attractive, successful, upwardly mobile couple millions have yearned to become. To all appearances they live in a world without racial boundaries or obvious religious identities.
When Abe (Behzad Dabu), Amir’s nephew, enters the apartment filled with passion about a jailed imam, Amir has no desire to become involved. Politically correct Emily pushes Amir to listen. His nephew has changed his name from Hussein to Abe Jensen which Amir finds ridiculous. He finds it equally unpleasant to be pulled back into the world of Islam. Though Amir never does represent the imam he attends a hearing and is subsequently quoted in the New York Times.
Isaac (j. Anthony Crane), is a curator at the Whitney; clearly he is Jewish. He is interested in seeing Emily’s Islam inspired new paintings for an upcoming Whitney Museum exhibit. He happens to be married to an African American lawyer in Amir’s firm, Jory (Karen Pittman), and Amir has encouraged this visit for him to see Emily’s new work.
Three months later the two couples are gathered in the apartment for a dinner party to celebrate Emily’s inclusion in the upcoming exhibit. It is here that the fireworks ensue. For each their identity is secular, successful, citizen of the world. Fueled by alcohol and disappointment conflict ensues and becomes tribal. The tribal becomes personal. The visual image of the four of them over dinner is the melting pot. How quickly that image is shattered.
Akhtar has created four appealing characters infused with humor. In less than 90 minutes he weaves a story both entertaining and alarming. Kimberly Senior’s direction underscores the fast pace of the story. You may not agree with the underlying thesis – when push comes to shove, we are all tribal – I am not comfortable with the Balkanization that it leads to. But Akhtar has presented his case with wit, humor, and wisdom. “Disgraced” is definitely worth a journey.