THE BASICS: Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama (2013) is all about race, religion, assimilation, and how complicated it is to be a Muslim American in present day America. The WNY premiere, with Road Less Traveled Productions, runs weekends through March 31st at their Pearl Street theater. John Hurley directs a cast of five. DISGRACED runs a little under ninety minutes in length. There is no intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Amir Kapoor, who has altered his name and his social security number, and completely renounced his religion, seems to be on the verge of partnership at a high-powered NYC law firm. He is married to Emily, a beautiful and ultrasupportive White Liberal, and a talented artist, to boot. What could go wrong? Plenty, beginning with a little statement made in support of an Imam being charged, we are told wrongly, with radical connections. At a dinner party Amir and his wife host for Isaac, a major art dealer whom Emily has been courting, and Isaac’s wife Jory, an up-and-coming black lawyer in Amir’s firm, we witness a breakdown of the surface conviviality. Imprudent remarks lead to bad actions, and, within months, Amir finds himself facing a very different and very uncertain future.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: While it may be foolhardy of me to critique a Pulitzer Prize winning drama, I think I am obligated; it comes with the territory. Playwright Akhtar brings up any number of interesting race and religion related problems in the short span of DISGRACED. It’s a very heady, intellectual piece. In my opinion, however, Akhtar doesn’t stay with any single line of thought long enough to fully engage his audience (or its non-Muslim members, at least). There doesn’t seem to be enough time for us to chew over this important stuff, hear differing points of view, be persuaded. When theatrical fireworks erupt toward the end of the play, I felt as though I was not properly prepared. I was also put off by the way that, in Akhtar’s hands, certain characters seem to stand for whole socioeconomic groups—Emily is Liberal, Bleeding Heart White America, Isaac is American Jews—Rich, Powerful and Highly Assimilated. Jory is the New Face of Black America. You get the drill.
Now for some good news: Afrim Gjonbalaj brings great presence, intelligence and a world of conflicting emotions to Amir, the Pakistani who will do almost anything to achieve the American Dream. His tears at the curtain call spoke so eloquently about the inner truths he had just shared.
Kristen Tripp Kelley, one of our finest local actors, gives yet another strong, nuanced performance as the sympathetic, understanding, but not-quite-saintly Emily. Matt Witten’s Isaac is OK, but rather bland, low key. There is no hint of Jewish flavor to it; was that on purpose? Candace Whitfield brings a certain class to the grossly underwritten Jory. Student Mohammad Farraj, in the key role of Amir’s evolving nephew, Abe, is adequate, but needs to step up his game.
Kudos to Lynne Koscielniak and Emily Powrie for their beautiful multicolored apartment set.
Kudos to Lynne Koscielniak and Emily Powrie for their beautiful multicolored apartment set—a true work of art for a play that uses art to make some of its basic points. A special shout out to whoever painted the final portrait!
NB: To avoid having a problem with the time element (as I did), please note that there is a three month gap between scenes two and three, and a six month gap between scenes three and four.
IN SUM: A powerful, downbeat, highly relevant drama about race and religion in America, and, in particular, the Muslim American experience. I can’t say I loved the play, but the RLTP production has a lot going for it.
Lead image: Afrim Gjonbalaj and Mohammad Farraj
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!