Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” a play full of instant (and mostly equal opportunity) ethnic provocation, is custom-made for our time — an era in which the lingering traumatic stress disorders of post-Sept. 11, 2001, and the countervailing somersaults of political correctness, vie for and frequently share the spotlight.
I was in the minority when, in its world premiere by American Theater Company in 2012, I found the play more irritating than enlightening or emotionally moving — smart and savvy, but with a sense that it wanted to be all things to all people, and ended up feeling like a mash-up of moral equivalents. In any case, it went on to have a successful New York production and to win the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. And it will be the most-produced play of the 2015-16 season (at 32 theaters nationwide), with a film version for HBO also in the works.
Among those many regional productions is the one currently on stage at the Goodman Theatre, where the play’s original director, Kimberly Senior, is again at the helm, with just one of the actors from the original Chicago cast reprising a role. Mounted on a far grander budget than at ATC (but certainly no better acted), “Disgraced” remains overly contrived, and more easily sensational than profound.
In fact, what “Disgraced” ends up doing best is simply to capture the brittle opportunism of affluent and upwardly mobile New Yorkers — the lawyers and art curators, the X-ray-thin Park Avenue wives — and the tensions between both the “older” money and new money classes, and the early “older” ethnic strivers and their newer ethnic competitors. It is full of people riddled with equal measures of self-loathing, narcissism and insecurity. And just when the play seems to be at its most brutally honest (notably when an assimilated Muslim-American man rails against the backward-looking nature of Muslim fundamentalism), it homes in on another character (the man’s young, subtly radicalized nephew) who quickly tries to mitigate that rant.
When: Through Oct. 25
Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25 – $82
Info: (312) 443-3800;
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
“Disgraced” unspools in the upscale, Upper East Side Manhattan apartment shared by Amir Kapoor (Bernard White), a Muslim-American whose parents were born in India as well as what, after the 1947 partition, became Pakistan. A mergers and acquisitions lawyer in a well-established Jewish firm, Amir is married to a non-Muslim, Emily (Nisi Sturgis), a petite blonde artist who is not only passionate about Islamic art (incorporating its design patterns into her canvases) but obsessed, to the point of over-compensation, with Islamic history and culture. As the play opens she is painting her husband in the style of “Juan de Pereja,” Velazquez’s 1650 portrait of his Moorish assistant (possibly a former slave) — a work that, when purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971 for a record $5.5 million, was seen as a major social statement.
The Kapoor marriage is showing some cracks. And, after Emily and Amir’s nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu, as a hip kid who has “rediscovered” his Islamic roots), urges Amir to make a professional visit to an imprisoned imam, and Emily pushes him to do so, things go from bad to worse. A New York Times story even uses his name in a way that suggests he might be a sympathizer.
Meanwhile, Emily’s paintings are accepted into a show by the influential (Jewish) curator Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), so the Kapoors throw a little dinner party for him and his wife, Jory (Zakiya Young), a rather conservative-minded African-American woman who just happens to work at the same firm as Amir and, like him, hopes to be made partner. There is more, but it should not be revealed. Suffice it to say that Amir erupts in a way that suggests the full depth of his inner turmoil and rage.
Might the moral of this story be summed up as “stick to your own kind,” that potent lyric from “West Side Story”? You would hope not. But the picture painted here is, to say the least, far from pretty.