It’s probably a good thing that space and time are united against the long piece I’d be tempted to write this week, comparing Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (LCT3) and Jon Kern’s Modern Terrorism (Second Stage). Such an essay would demand the skills of an alert sociologist and an astute political scientist, neither of which I claim to be, along with those of a drama critic. Instead, to my relief, I can deal solely with Disgraced, which deserves serious attention, in this space. Briefer comment on Modern Terrorism will be found elsewhere.
On its own, Disgraced stands among recent marks of an increasing and welcome phenomenon: the arrival of South Asian and Middle Eastern Americans as presences in our theater’s dramatis personae, matching their presence in our daily life. Like all such phenomena, it carries a double significance. An achievement and a sign of recognition for those it represents, for the rest of us it constitutes the theatrical equivalent of getting to know the new neighbors—something we had better do if we plan to survive as a civil society.
The trouble, as we all know, is that people don’t always like their new neighbors, while neighbors lately arrived from a foreign country with its own distinctive ancient culture are notorious for not being crazy about the new world in which they’ve arrived. For Irish, Italian, and East European Jewish immigrants, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the conflict was tough but less pressured; onstage it mainly took the form of light comedy seasoned with melodrama. Chinese, Japanese, and Philippine Americans, as non-Europeans, have faced a harder fight against prejudice; African Americans have had a longer theatrical struggle, paralleling their longer, bitterness-building, history in the U.S.
For Pakistani Americans like Amir (Aasif Mandvi), Disgraced‘s hero, the familiar conflict between assimilation and the old-country heritage has acquired more painful twists, some of them brought about by today’s fevered world situation, in which even people who seem only vaguely Islamic are assumed all too automatically to be terrorists. Other problems, ironically, come from the presence of so many predecessor groups with the same story. Amir, who has jettisoned his last name—Abdullah—in favor of the more Indian-sounding Kapoor, handles high-end clients for a hotshot law firm whose senior partners, all Jews, went into mergers and acquisitions, which the white-shoe law firms that wouldn’t hire them disdained. Now his Jewish employers are the establishment, Amir says, and people like him are “the new Jews.”
But life is never that simple. Amir’s glamorous WASP wife, Emily (Heidi Armbruster), an artist with a passion for embattled minorities and their cultures, wants him to take up the defense of an imam, idolized by Amir’s teenage nephew (Omar Maskati), whose inflammatory speeches have gotten him accused of fostering terrorist groups. At the same time, a Jewish museum curator (Erik Jensen), married to a vivacious black lawyer (Karen Pittman) also employed by Amir’s firm, begins to take an interest in Emily’s new paintings, in which she explores Islamic visual sources.
You can bet that this situation won’t turn out well, and the results, complicated by a few personal betrayals, are messy for all concerned, including vicious name-calling and some physical violence. What makes Disgraced impressive is that Akhtar, having invented four educated, intelligent adult characters, lets the burgeoning mess articulate itself through their interaction. There are occasional exceptions, but by and large, his people know what they’re talking about. When they chop logic or oversimplify, it’s usually because the conversation has grown heated, as in the dinner-party scene where the two couples’ relationship falls disastrously apart. Aside from one overly tidy device—a less than probable, all too convenient adultery—you rarely feel the playwright nudging them in the right direction.
Speaking of direction, Kimberly Senior manages the shifting tone and steady build of Akhtar’s script skillfully, her one lapse being the naggy, minimalist music between scenes. Dane Laffrey’s aptly upscale costumes and Tyler Micoleau’s lush, sunshiny lights subtly underpin the text’s knowing flow of art-talk. The performances are all excellent, Armbruster (no surprise) catching most vividly the spirit of this smart, troubling play, while Mandvi, as its focal point, seems, without ever underlining, to signal the weight of its inner torments, even in his most casual moments.