Theater Review: The Believable Gut-Punch of Disgraced

Photo: Joan Marcus

It’s a good thing that the playwright Ayad Akhtar is Muslim, because if any non-Muslim wrote Disgraced — and you could almost imagine someone like Bruce Norris wanting to — the response from both left and right would be furious. As it is, the intense 80-minute drama, which seems to ask whether there is something inherent in Islam that predisposes believers to violence, incites furious responses anyway; at the preview I attended, a member of the audience, echoing one character’s description of the Muslim protagonist, shouted, “He is a fucking animal!” But even the non-shouters looked pretty stunned by the play’s brutal climax. I was, too, despite having seen it before, in a much more intimate staging produced by Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow in 2012. This bigger, more glamorous Broadway version exposes more faults and infelicities, but also strips away one’s liberal pieties more effectively. Perhaps Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize not so much for drama as for bravery. 

Or perhaps for mathematics. Akhtar builds the play on an ingenious four-square framework you might call a Privilege Matrix. In the upper half are light-skinned people; in the lower half, dark-skinned. On the right are men; on the left, women. Our protagonist, Amir Kapoor, is therefore in the lower-right quadrant: at 40 he is a high-powered corporate lawyer, on track to make partner, but he is also, by birth, a Muslim. He is married to a white woman, Emily, who’s thus in the upper left; she’s an artist hoping to have her latest work shown by the gallerist Isaac, a Jew surprised to find himself in the upper right. Isaac is married to (and Amir works at the law firm with) Jory, a black woman; perhaps it is no accident that, although she is in the least privileged corner of the matrix, she is the only one without an apparent agenda about Islam and the only one who really sees what’s going on. 

And something is going on: Aside from arranging the four main characters in cross-privilege marriages, Akhtar sets the field in motion with a series of somewhat less credible provocations. Turns out, Emily is an Islamophile, not only basing her new paintings on Islamic mosaic patterns but arguing for the centrality of that tradition, alongside Greece’s and Rome’s, in the Western cultural heritage. Meanwhile Amir is running away from Islam, a faith he disowns and disparages at length; Kapoor is not his original last name but one he selected to let people think he was Hindu. Jory has no such means of passing, but is secretly in meetings to snag for herself the partnership Amir believes he’s earned at the — did I mention? — Jewish law firm. And Isaac is a classic passive-aggressive prince, confidently preaching on other people’s themes and initiating the unauthorized side-channel activity that will eventually tip the whole grid over. 

Because of the play’s overdetermined structure, everyone owns a piece of the blame. Once the grid is activated this makes for some nerve-racking dinner-party arguments, as the white characters maintain, over the fennel-anchovy salad, that Islam is a different thing from Islamo-fascism, and Amir, the apostate Muslim, argues they are the same. The Koran, he says, is “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.” It endorses wife-beating and stoning for adulterers. Moreover, because it is a less forgiving tract than even the Hebrew bible, it is immensely more dangerous:

AMIR: There’s a result to believing that a book written about life in a specific society fifteen hundred years ago is the word of God: You start wanting to recreate that society. After all, it’s the only one in which the Quran makes any literal sense. That’s why you have people like the Taliban. They’re trying to re-create the world in the image of the one that’s in the Quran.

And then events conspire to prove him right. 

At least they do in the world of the play. Taking a step back, though, you begin to see the author’s hand stacking the deck. At every point where the tension escalates — and there are some pretty big gasps from the audience throughout — a sense of unreality seems to push in the opposite direction. Particularly in the intrusions of a fifth character, Amir’s nephew, who has come under the influence of a possibly radical imam, the timing of arrivals and revelations seems too convenient. (The nephew, inverting Amir’s trajectory, is changing his name back to Hussein from Abe Jensen.) Key background stories have the too-tight feel of custom tailoring about them: Do we really believe that Amir’s mother spit in his face when, in sixth grade, he expressed an interest in a Jewish classmate named Rivkah? (Did he attend a yeshiva?) If we do believe it, what does that say about the basis of Amir’s anti-Islam crusade? Is it merely a reflection of his personal pathology? Such plotting contrivances and ludicrous behaviors eventually uncouple the central argument: first by cutting the connections between the characters and the groups they are meant to represent, then by cutting the connections between the characters and real people as we know them. Live by the absurd, die by the absurd.  

And yet Akhbar’s craft is such that, amid the rubble of his argument, the questions — and they are important ones, worth asking on Broadway — survive. Perhaps, after all, the argument was just a house for the questions, and not, as is more typical, vice versa. The production suggests as much, its grand John Lee Beatty Upper East Side Deluxe set seeming to disintegrate before our eyes as Amir does. In general, though, the Broadway resizing and recasting does not work to the play’s advantage. Kimberly Senior’s direction grows stronger as the play proceeds, but nearly derails the story at the start, with confusing staging and flaccid pacing. And though Hari Dhillon is riveting in his unraveling, he does not make us understand, as the charming Aasif Mandvi did Off Broadway, what was so delightful about Amir before the trouble began. Gretchen Mol as Emily and Josh Radnor as Isaac do well within the confines of the cages Akhtar has put them in; as Jori, Karen Pittman, the only holdover from the previous cast, busts out of hers quite thrillingly and while rocking sky-high burgundy heels as well. 

The most notable achievement, though, may be that of UnkleDave’s Fight-House, which staged the climactic violence. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed in the theater a scene as viscerally realistic. That’s the power and the problem of Disgraced: Its punches are shockingly believable. Its people, not so much. 

Disgraced is at the Lyceum Theatre.