‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson. These days, as concern about immigration, racism and terrorism take center stage, many people seek the truth about these issues, so perhaps there is no better time to experience Ayad Akhtar’s provocative Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Disgraced, which appeared off-Broadway two years ago and is now running on Broadway. (It also set a box-office record during its run in London last year.) With its own “slant,” it tackles each of these issues in a novel and gripping narrative that centers around the role of Islam in the midst of today’s challenges.
Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) is a very successful mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who is, in his own words, an “apostate” Muslim. His wife Emily (Gretchen Moll) is an artist who has become a great admirer of Islamic culture. On one of the walls of their spacious apartment on New York’s Upper East Side hangs one of Emily’s paintings, which the playwright describes as “a vibrant, two-paneled image in luscious whites and blues with patterns reminiscent of an Islamic garden.” As the play begins, Amir is posing for Emily as she sketches her painting, which she has chosen to model after Velasquez’s famous “Portrait of Juan de Pareja,” a Moor who, as Amir reminds her, was also his slave. Within minutes, they are arguing about what Amir considers to have been a waiter’s racist attitude towards them at a restaurant the night before.
They are interrupted by a visit from Amir’s nephew Hussein (Danny Ashok) who, like his uncle, is of South Asian origin but has become Americanized and has changed his name to Abe Jensen. With the support of Emily, he has come to ask Amir to join the legal team for a Muslim imam who has been accused of raising money for Hamas. Despite his opposition to the Muslim religion, Amir ends up being connected to the case, which leads to trouble for him.
But the trial is not the only place where race and faith are at play. A couple has been invited to dinner—Isaac (Josh Radnor), who is Jewish and a curator at the Whitney, and his wife Jory (Karen Pittman), who is African-American and works at the same law firm as Amir. So there we have it, a melting pot of four different ethnicities in one room, all similarly intelligent, cultured and articulate, living the American dream with a generous supply available on the liquor cart. What could possibly go wrong? Well, ever since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” theatergoers have come to expect disaster from such a gathering. This play does not disappoint.
Emily has invited Isaac to dinner, hoping he will include some of her works in the museum’s next exhibit. Meanwhile, Jory and Amir will have an opportunity for the usual workplace gossip, which will eventually lead to Jory’s revelation of some bad news. The rest of the play presents some lively arguments fueled by considerable Scotch and wine.
With the tension between him and his wife still palpable, Amir goes out to the liquor store to pick up the wine he forgot to buy, and Emily and Isaac get into a lively conversation about their mutual admiration of Islamic art and culture, which Emily maintains has been a major influence in philosophy and Western art and is “a part of who we are.” Isaac agrees, saying that the young artists today are working to “make art sacred again.”
But the dinner conversation morphs into Amir’s fierce criticism of the Koran, the Taliban and Islamic society in general. He admits, however, that he viewed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with a certain pride that the Muslim world was finally rising up against the Western pattern during the last 300 years of reshaping the borders and laws of the Middle East and basically “disgracing” the Arab world. By the end of the evening, he has managed to insult his Jewish and African-American guests and finally becomes quite violent.
Under Kimberly Senior’s direction, the performances are thrilling, combining intellectual acumen with a turbulent load of anger boiling underneath. The scenic design, by the multi-award winning and probably busiest designer on Broadway, John Lee Beatty, says it all. Any New York apartment that includes a balcony off the living room and a bedroom that can be reached only by going down a lengthy hallway tells us all we need to know about Amir and Emily’s financial status.
The playwright, Ayad Akhtar, who is also an actor, director, filmmaker and novelist, was born in Staten Island to Pakistani parents and raised in Milwaukee. His writing has focused on the complex relations between Americans and Muslims both inside the United States and beyond in the 21st century. His film “The War Within” (2005) examined the conflicts in the life of a young man who becomes a terrorist. And another of his plays, “The Invisible Hand,” just opened off Broadway. It presents the plight of a high-level American employee of Citibank in Pakistan who has been taken hostage and who counters their demand for a $10 million ransom with his plan to manipulate the stock market to raise considerably more money to offer for his release. One critic describes the play as a display of “the power of the almighty dollar to shape or shake societies around the world.”
Audiences should be prepared to be shocked and disturbed by “Disgraced,” which Akhtar considers to be a tragedy in the mode of Greek drama, especially in its examination of, as he puts it, “the recalcitrant tribal tendencies we all harbor.” But they should not be surprised if it is nominated for several Tony Awards this season. Akhtar has spoken about the way in which a play must contain “insinuations of truth.” Sounds a lot like Emily Dickinson to me.