The Arts Club's Bill Millerd is certainly consistent in his programming choices, including when, for his largely subscription-based audience, he goes out on a limb and programs a "risky" play at a mainstage space like the Stanley. Having achieved success three years ago with Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, a caustic comedy about contemporary racial and economic politics in Chicago (and about which I blogged here), his season opener at the Stanley this year is Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced. Like Norris' play, Akhtar's tackles head-on the issue of race in twenty-first century America; also like Clybourne Park, Disgraced comes to town bearing the imprimatur of a Pulitzer Prize and trailing lots of critical acclaim. Finally, this production of Disgraced is directed by the venerable Janet Wright, who also helmed Norris' play for the AC, and both productions share two cast members: Marci T. House and Robert Moloney.
All the winning ingredients for a repeat success. And yet I still left last night's performance extremely disappointed. The fault has less to do with the AC's production per se, which is snappily directed and for the most part well acted. The fault for me lies with Ahktar's script, which sets out to critique binaristic readings of what it means to be a Muslim-American man today, but ends up re-entrenching those binaries--often in extremely disturbing ways.
The play focuses on Amir Kapoor (Patrick Sabongui, making an assured AC debut), a successful New York lawyer of Pakistani descent. Amir, who long ago changed his last name from Abdullah, is an assimilated Muslim man who claims to abhor the fundamentalist ideology of the religion in which he was raised. However, his wife Emily (Kyra Zagorsky), a painter, finds inspiration for her art in Islamic tile-work and architecture, and even in the spiritual teachings of the Qur'an. Complicating matters further is the presence in the couple's life of Amir's nephew Abe (a very effective Conor Wylie). Like Amir, Abe has changed his name (from Hussein); but unlike Amir, Abe has not completely turned his back on his family and his community, and he has arrived at his uncle's doorstep seeking his help regarding the apparently illegal incarceration of a local Imam. Amir does not want to get involved and in the course of explaining to his nephew and his wife his problems with the Muslim faith, Amir recounts the story of his fifth-grade love, Rivka. When Amir's mother found out about the flirtation she told him he couldn't be involved with a Jew and spit in his face; later in the school hallway, when Rivka approaches him, he tells her that he can't see her anymore because she is a Jew and likewise spits in her face. It's one of many moments in the script that elicits a gasp from both of Amir's on-stage and off-stage audiences. But it's also an example, as we shall see, of Ahktar's framing of Amir's apparently available choices--acquired culture-blind liberal tolerance vs. the weight of family and religious inheritance--in impossible black and white terms.
Nevertheless, at Emily's prodding, Amir says he will look into the Imam's case and when, later, he is quoted in the New York Times about the brief, he begins a paranoid unravelling in which his neatly compartmentalized professional and personal lives start to overlap in increasingly combustible ways. That this is accompanied by a dinner party with his black colleague Jory (House) and her Jewish art curator husband, Isaac (Moloney), only ups the ante. We met Isaac in a previous scene, when he came to look at Emily's paintings, and now three months later, following a trip together to London to attend the Frieze Art Fair, Emily is hosting this dinner in hopes that Isaac will announce that he's including her in the upcoming Whitney Biennale that he is organizing. This is duly disclosed, but there are more revelations over the course of the evening: that Jory has made partner at the law firm, for example, whereas Amir is on the verge of being fired; and, most clunkily, that Emily and Isaac slept together while in London.
As in Norris' Clybourne Park, Akhtar is interested in using the well-worn conceit of domestic melodrama to rip away the polite veneer of race relations in America. But whereas everyone is made to look bad in Norris' play, the climax of Disgraced presents the audience with the picture of the Muslim man, having struggled in vain all his life to suppress it, discovering and unleashing his backward animal savagery, his inner jihadist--that part of himself that, as he puts it to Isaac after more than a few drinks, felt a "blush of pride" when the Twin Towers fell. My problem has less to do with Akhtar's suggestion that in a post-Patriot Act America the Muslim man is positioned between two impossible poles--assimilation or extremism--than with his overly-obvious and even cliched telegraphing of Amir's disgrace. So, for example, the story about Rivka is there in the first scene to set up the moment at the end of the play when Amir spits in Isaac's face; and the dinner-table argument with Emily about what the Qur'an has to say about wife-beating makes all the more inevitable the blows he lands upon her body when she confesses the truth about her affair with Isaac.
Clybourne Park and Disgraced are both "social problem plays" aimed squarely at a mainstream audience. Which means that complex issues like race and cultural difference to a certain extent get reduced to screaming matches, with everyone given an equal opportunity at outrage and boorish behaviour. But in Norris' play not only was the added context of class brought into the equation, the plot was also wedded to a two-act structure that created even more tension and depth through historical and dramatic parallelism. Akhtar is also aspiring to marry form to content, and the play concludes with a coda in which Abe/Hussein returns, newly radicalized and once again seeking his uncle's legal advice--this time in connection with his own arrest and questioning by the FBI. However, both the circular structure of Akhtar's play and that of fundamentalist ideology arguably conspire here to confirm rather than to challenge cultural stereotypes.
It's certainly not what I expected from this play--especially given what I'd heard about it and the playwright in advance. I am hoping that Pi Theatre's production of The Invisible Hand in April offers me a different perspective.