Huntington’s ‘Disgraced’ Is Explosive, Thought Provoking Theater (4.5 Stars)

‘Disgraced’ – Written by Ayad Akhtar; Directed by Gordon Edelstein. Scenic Design by Lee Savage; Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design by Eric Southern; Sound Design by David Van Tieghem. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company, in association with Long Wharf Theatre, at the Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre at 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston through February 7.

It is often said that one should never discuss politics or religion in polite company, and in our increasingly polarized society, that’s probably a good rule of thumb. And if either of those subjects are deeply ingrained in your core identity, it may also be prudent advice. But in the case of Pakistani-born corporate attorney Amir Kapoor, the central figure in the Huntington’s explosive drama “Disgraced”, it is not the dinner party, or the meeting at the office, or the disapproving looks from wait staff that threaten to blow up his life and career, it is his own unresolved identity conflicts.


When we first meet Amir (in dress shirt and boxer shorts), he is being sketched by his quintessentially WASPy wife Emily, who specializes in Islam-inspired painting. The couple are discussing an incident from the previous evening, where the waiter at the Manhattan restaurant apparently frowned upon the coupling of the thin, blond beauty and the brown-skinned man. Emily appears to be the more upset of the two, but we soon see that Amir’s apparent acceptance of the incident does not mean that he is by any means serene. When a lower-level colleague returns a phone call, Amir angrily degrades him for his incompetence, adding insults for good measure. Which would be easy to dismiss as routine behavior for a corporate attorney, but it is his next encounter that is more revealing.


Amir’s hipster-ish nephew – who is trying to assimilate into Western society and has changed his Muslim name (Hussein) to Abe Jensen – asks Amir to show up in court to support an imam that has been wrongly accused of raising money for radical extremists and has been imprisoned. After chiding his nephew for changing his name to hide his Muslim identity, Amir at first declines, then relates a horrifying story that explains how he turned away from his own Islamic faith. When his nephew again asks him, he launches into an almost psychotic fit of anger. But the most telling piece of the whole exchange comes when Amir, after nearly reducing his 18-year old nephew to tears, asks him (while the nephew still shaking), “We okay?” before he tries to make things right by reluctantly agreeing.


Time passes, and the New York Times runs an article that not only sounds like Amir is (vaguely) supportive of the controversial imam, but also identifies the name of the (Jewish) law firm that he works for, which does not sit well with his employers. In the meantime, Amir has set up an appointment for Emily with Isaac, a Jewish art curator who is interested in her work and married to a colleague. The meeting goes well, setting up the climactic dinner party for Amir, Emily, Isaac and Jory, Isaac’s African-American wife, as storms are brewing in the background.


Those expecting a well-reasoned exploration of race, religion and politics in America today should look elsewhere, as this work is anything but politically correct – and not in the pejorative way that Donald Trump has co-opted the phrase for his demented campaign. The gloves come off – aided by an awful lot of liquor, particularly on the part of Amir – and what starts as playful jabs at the other’s ethnicity and religion soon becomes disturbing. No-one is spared, either verbally or via implication. And thankfully, the intense conversations are broken up periodically by small comic vignettes, which only increases the dramatic effect.


The focus of course, is on Amir, and in the beginning of the play one could easily have called him a “self-loathing” Muslim – a term more often associated with the occasional character from the other desert tribe. In fact, during the play I was reminded of Philip Gellburg from Arthur Miller's 'Broken Glass' – an equally conflicted character. But as the booze and anger fuse, his true feelings begin to emerge and he delivers some hard truths, that – while some may find shocking – at least make some sense, given that not all prejudice is fashioned from imagination, and that one man’s freedom fighter is often another man’s terrorist.

 

As Amir, Rajesh Bose delivers a powerful, sometimes frightening performance. Initially his character can be quite charming, even with the angry outbursts, but as his interior conflicts and exterior problems mount, he transforms into what one character refers to him as, “an animal”. And he is quite convincing. Playwright Ayad Akhtar has given him a lot to work with, and he makes some great choices. The other characters may not be as well drawn, and are almost a little too convenient in their diversity, but the performances by Nicole Lowrance (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac), Shirine (Jory) Babb, and Mohit Gautam are solid in support of the anti-hero.

 

This is one of the most thought-provoking plays I have seen in years, and I highly recommend it. Not for the politically squeamish, but you’ll leave the theater ready to have SOME kind of a conversation. But be prepared, it may not be pleasant, depending on your choice of play companion. For more information, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/disgraced/