By Karen Isaacs
In just a taut 90 minutes, Disgraced at Long Wharf explores issues of the immigrant experience – assimilation, cultural heritage, religious differences, “otherness,” and self-hatred. Plus it leaves the audience emotionally stunned.
This Pulitzer Prize winning play by Ayad Akhtar while it focuses on the Arab-American experience, draws parallels to all other ethnic groups that have come to US, needed to assimilate to succeed, and ended up with a love-hate relationship with their prior culture, especially among first generation immigrants.
It is astonishing how in the opening scene, which is brief, Akhtar conveys so much information yet we don’t feel overwhelmed by exposition. We learn that Amir (Rajesh Bose) is a driven and successful merger and acquisition lawyer in New York City and that his “white” (yes, that is term that is used) wife, Emily (Nicole Lowrance), is an artist who is influenced by Islamic art. Though Amir is Muslim, he has rejected his religion. At the behest of his wife and his young adult nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam), he has visited Abe’s Iman in jail. The Iman has been accused of providing funds to radical groups. Abe and Emily now want him to appear at the Iman’s hearing. It is significant that Emily is painting him in a pose reminiscent of Velázquez’ masterpiece of Juan de Pareja who Emily refers to as the painter’s assistant and an artist but that Amir refers to as Velázquez’ slave.
Scene two is even briefer but again we see Emily’s defense of all things Islamic. Amir is very upset: he did appear at the Iman’s hearing and the NY Times, in its story, not only quotes him but mentions the firm’s name – which is obviously Jewish. He is apprehensive about the inference that he is one of the Iman’s lawyers and the fallout with his bosses; he wants to make partner.
But it is in the longest scene, scene three which takes place three months later that the tensions mount. I don’t want to reveal too many details. But let us say that things have not been going well for Amir at the law firm. Emily is awaiting to learn if she is to be included in a major exhibition. That evening, Emily has invited another couple for dinner: Isaac (Benim Foster) an art dealer who is planning the exhibition and his wife, Jory (Shirine Babb) who just happens to be a lawyer with the same firm as Amir. Isaac is Jewish and Jory, African-American.
Fueled by alcohol and tensions, (there are secrets galore that get revealed), a discussion about Islam, the importance of Islamic culture in world history, modern perceptions of Islam, ethnic pride Judaism and race in America today. At times, there were audible gasps from the audience a result of both statements and actions.
The concluding scene – three months later – shows us the repercussions of that night. Again, I don’t want to reveal all except to saw the Amir’s nephew Abe has reverted to his Arabic name and seems on the way to being radicalized.
It is interesting that recently, Indecent at Yale Rep and Broken Glass at Westport have explored similar themes of the immigrant experience and acceptance in America.
At times the play does seem too “pat” – the ethnic mix of the four major characters and the coincidence: that Amir and Jory are both aiming for partner at the same law firm and that Isaacs happens to be an art dealer – pushes coincidence to an extreme level.
Lee Savage has created a set that gives us a spacious New York City apartment, in keeping with their economic status with a large painting that reflects Islamic art. Ilona Somogyi created costumes that again help delineate the characters – Amir and Jory are in appropriate lawerly attire while Emily and Isaac’s clothes are more casual and “artsy”. The lighting design by Eric Southern adds to the changing moods of the piece.
Director Gordon Edelstein has assembled a fine cast and used them effectively. From the moment you see them, Rajesh Bose and Nicole Lowrance create a couple that is both passionate about each other and simultaneously in conflict. Bose shows us an Amir that is a tightly wound coil; in a sense we should not be surprised when it suddenly lets go. Lowrance gives us an Emily that does not truly understand the insecurities that Amir feels about acceptance in American culture; she does not realize that it is a fragile thing.
Benin Foster’s Isaac seems so sure of himself that he is tone deaf – like a bull in a china shop – he fails to pick up on the various clues that all others provide him. He keeps charging at whatever he wants. Shirine Babb as Jory has the least fully developed role of the two couples. She is there as a foil and to allow Amir one stunning outburst.
Disgraced is a play that will have you stunned at some of the events as you watch it and talking or thinking about for days afterwards.
Disgraced is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven, through Nov. 8. For tickets visit longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282.