Ayad Akhtar’s new play Disgraced opens on a scene in which Emily (Lisa Velten Smith), a white artist, sketches her husband, Amir (Fajer Kaisi), a successful attorney of Pakistani origins, for a portrait she wants to paint of him after Diego Velasquez’s famous painting of his Moorish assistant, Juan de Pareja. The play’s final image is a moment nine months later: Amir face to face with his wife’s painting of himself as a modern version of the subaltern in the master’s clothes, in a lighting cue that suggests the bars of a prison or cage. Between these two bookends, the play traces the collapse of Amir’s carefully constructed American success story under the weight of anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-9/11 era.
The setting of the play is Emily and Amir’s tastefully appointed condo on the Upper East Side, one wall of which is dominated by a painting of a distorted moorish pattern, of the kind you might find among the mosaics of the Alhambra in Spain (scene design by Anne Mundell). This painting is Emily’s work; she’s an Islam-enthusiast who believes that the artistic and intellectual achievements of the Arab world have too long been under-appreciated by the West. Her embrace of Islam finds its polar opposite in her husband, Amir, who was raised a Muslim but now not only lives as “an apostate” (his words, not mine) but also actively works to keep his origins a secret: he has presented himself professionally to his (mainly) Jewish colleagues at his law firm as an Indian with unspecified religious affiliation (his mentor, assuming that he’s Hindu, has gifted him a Shiva). The painting is also Emily’s hope for a career breakthrough – Amir has arranged for Isaac (Ryan McCarthy), a curator at the Whitney and husband of his law firm colleague Jory (Nafeesa Monroe) to visit Emily’s studio and consider including her work in an exhibition he is curating. Like Amir and Emily, Isaac and Jory are also an interracial and interfaith couple: Isaac is a white Jew and Jory is African-American.
The play’s conflict is set in motion when Amir’s nephew Abe (Justin Ahdoot), a devout Muslim, prevails on Emily to convince Amir to lend support to his imam, who has been arrested for providing support to terrorists. A news article that mistakenly identifies Amir as a member of the imam’s defense team outs him as a Muslim to his colleagues, and the professional consequences that spiral out of that revelation crack fissures in Amir’s carefully self-fashioned identity. Everything comes to a head at a dinner party Amir and Emily host for Isaac and Jory, when Amir – having had far too many fingers of scotch – makes the kind of racially charged “confessions” drunk people really regret making and provokes a heated exchange of ugly sentiments between the two couples. The night climaxes with a revelation that precipitates a moment of violence that seems to confirm all the worst stereotypes about Muslims that Amir had earlier condemned.
Tracy Brigden directs a visceral and hard-hitting production, one that feels “real” even when the dialogue sometimes seems overwritten (as when Emily and Isaac indulge in art-theory-speak in the second scene). The cast is terrific, and the climactic dinner party scene is riveting in a horrifying kind of way. Robert C.T. Steele’s contemporary costumes underscore the quality of realness in the characters. Scene transitions pop along with dancing patterns of light on the floor (more mosaic patterns, lights by Phil Monat) accompanied by a kind of techno-Arab music (sound: Zach Moore) that underlines the play’s interest in both the past and present of Islamic thought and heritage.
This play offers a lot of food for thought about what it is to move through American society as a Muslim in the present day, and it refuses to provide easy answers or satisfying resolutions. There are things that are troubling about this play’s configuration of tribal alliances – the play’s suggestions, for example, that Muslim religious identity is ultimately essentializing and inescapable, or that American Jews unconsciously hold and act on anti-Arab prejudices, seem hard to fathom – but it’s not afraid of putting disagreeable and dismaying ideas “out there” for examination. It may be a play that, as a couple of recent critics have argued (here and here), succumbs to the stereotyping it also seeks to expose and counter: it certainly left me a little disoriented and unsure of what to think about it. The bottom line is that Disgraced is the kind of play you’ll want to talk about: bring a friend and plan for drinks to hash it out after.