Friday, March 18, 2016

"Disgraced" - Dinner Party Gone Toxic Opens Door to Fiery Polemic on Religion, Race and Radicalism


(left to right): Nafeesa Monroe, Fajer Kaisi, Lisa Velten Smith and Ryan McCarthy Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theater
    For a drama with so much emotional impact, "Disgraced" starts off benignly enough. In a stylish apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Emily is seen working on a portrait of her husband, Amir.
The face on the painting is his but the pose is copied from a work by Spanish artist, Diego Velasquez titled "Portrait of Juan de Paraja," Velasquez’ assistant and a Moorish slave. The couple banter lightly, witty as a Noel Coward duo, but the painting holds potent, foreboding implications that hint at the play’s eventual denouement.
From this innocuous beginning, the arc of the play, which won Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar a 2012 Pulitzer Prize, gradually descends into dangerous territory. It’s one  pitted with heated opinions on issues best left unexplored at a dinner party attended by Amir, a Pakistani Muslim, his WASP-ish, Sandy Dennis-blond and white-skinned wife, Emily, an African-American lawyer named Jory and her Jewish husband, Isaac, curator at the Whitney Museum.
A religious agnostic and corporate lawyer whose star is in ascendance at his law firm, Amir shies away from his Pakistani origins and Islamic background for professional reasons. Ironically, Emily is enamored with Moorish artistic imagery, which she incorporates into her own work and catches the eye of Isaac, who offers her a show at the Whitney.
Things take an inauspicious turn with the arrival of Abe, Amir’s nephew, who comes knocking to encourage him to come to the defense of a local imam accused of radical tendencies. The youth, who changed his name from Hussein to Abe and is fully assimilated into the American way of life, believes the imam is innocent and implores his uncle to help save him.
With added entireties from his wife, Amir gives in and comes to the religious leader’s defense. His good intentions backfire when the news media reports on his involvement in the case, which unsettles the powers-that-be in the law office.
Worried about his status at his law firm, he begins downing drams of aged Macallan scotch even before his dinner guests arrive. At first a festive event that jump starts over a fennel and anchovy salad, the initial camaraderie soon transitions into opinions on religion, politics and race. Fueled by alcohol, inhibitions melt away, and things get even edgier with revelations about the personal malefactions and prickly marital betrayals.
As Amir, Fajer Kaisi artfully transitions from an intelligent, handsome, confident lawyer at the top of his game to a man who loses almost everything like some blameless hero cut from a Greek tragedy. As Emily, Lisa Velten Smith lives the cozy-comfortable life of a well-heeled artist with a promising future, an energized young woman insulated from many of life’s pratfalls and a bit egocentric as a result.
As the Whitney curator, Ryan McCarthy knows how to play the game, affable and congenial in social situations, he also shows undercurrents of the ruthlessness and self-serving traits often a necessary by-product of the competitive art world. As an emotional antidote to the somber tone of the dinner party, Nafeesa Monroe is an energizing spark plug that adds a lot of humor and panache to the proceedings.
   
Justin Ahdoot Phgoto Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theater

Jutin Ahdoot captures with a lot of depth the youthful energy and thoughtful character of Abe, a lad caught up in a cultural conflict that pits his life in 21st Century America against the ancient traditions he inherited from his Islamic roots.
    At times, the cast seems a bit rushed and overly deliberate in their delivery and a bit out of synch with one another. It’s a small mote for a play that deals with such momentous issues and topical components as radicalized Islam, ethnic and racial tensions and the elusive nature of prejudice in all sorts of guises.
    Tracy Brigden, artistic director of Pittsburgh’s City Theatre, handles the directorial duties with support from scenic designer Anne Mundell, who creates an appropriately swank backdrop on the O’Reilly Theater stage, sound designer, Zach Moore, who incorporates some appropriately exotic and intoxicating music into the production and Catherine Moore, whose fight direction makes the violent component of the drama seem all too real.
    Running about 90 minutes without an intermission, "Disgraced" is a provocative look at some heady contemporary issues that is both insightful  and agonizingly thought-inducing.
    At the end, we find Amir alone with the portrait of himself as Velasquez’s slave, now realizing how chained he is to his to own cultural and religious upbringing, this despite his avowed free-thinking emancipation from religiosity. It’s a lesson that might well apply to most everyone.
    "Disgraced," a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown Pittsburgh, through April 10. For reservations, phone 412-316-1600 or visit ppt.org.

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