Every religion has its own idiosyncrasies, observes one of the characters in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” but it soon becomes clear that there are only certain idiosyncrasies they’re willing to tolerate.
The Pulitzer-winning play, which opened at Stage Left this weekend, is a bruising drama about bigotry and racial identity, both in the world at large and amongst four New Yorkers at a dinner party in an increasingly claustrophobic apartment.
Directed by Lance Babbitt, “Disgraced” presents us with the schematics of a basic morality play: We might think that each of its characters is meant to be representative of their respective ethnicities, but people aren’t so tidily defined, and neither is this show.
Consider Amir (Joe Mazzie), a lawyer for a successful merger and acquisitions firm. He was born in Pakistan, but because of his last name – Kapoor – people assume he’s of Indian descent. That’s fine by Amir: India and Pakistan are practically the same country anyway, he proclaims.
Amir was raised Muslim, but he’s since renounced the faith. He’s a proud and vocal apostate: Islam is a barbaric religion, he argues, one that suppresses women and encourages violence. Amir’s 20-something nephew (Jared Johnson) bristles at this generalization: How can he be considered the enemy when the harassment he experiences caused him to change his name from Hussein to Abe?
Amir’s wife, Emily (Aubrey Shimek Davis), who’s white, is also a defender of the Quran. She’s an up-and-coming artist who finds “beauty and wisdom” in Muslim traditions, and her current collection is inspired by Islamic iconography. She wants to explore the faith, she says, but with a “lack of irony.”
There is, we soon learn, an obvious irony in her methods, because her buried prejudices are soon exposed during a dinner party that gives way to verbal confrontations and physical violence. Amir and Emily are celebrating the completion of that collection, and they’ve invited Isaac (Robert John Hodge), a Jewish art curator, and his wife Jory (Alyssa Jordan), a black lawyer who works with Amir, over for the evening.
Mindless, idle chatter about Spanish wines and fennel and anchovy salad becomes combustible around the time that the topic of airport security is breached. They’ve nearly polished off a bottle of scotch, and Amir’s feelings about Islam force their way into the conversation. He’s begrudgingly agreed to legally represent an imam with supposed ties to terrorism, and a New York Times article about the case has unexpectedly thrust Amir’s Muslim background to the forefront.
I won’t reveal the particulars of the long fight that follows, because 1) much of it is unprintable and 2) you should allow its bluntness to hit you like a splash of cold water to the face. Much of what is said is shocking, certainly, but it never feels like it’s confronting us strictly for the sake of confrontation. Much of that has to do with the strong performances of Babbitt’s actors, who never indulge in stereotypes and create people who feel real – they’re messy, impulsive and contradictory.
So many stories have foregone conclusions and feature characters whose motives are easily explained. In “Disgraced,” there are no clear cut answers. We’re not always sure whose side we’re on, but are we even supposed to be on anyone’s? Do these people really mean the horrible things they say, or are they merely using racism as a cheap form of ammunition?
Akhtar, himself of Pakistani descent, doesn’t let any of his characters off the hook. We think we know where the show is taking us and how Akhtar is going to engineer the play’s ideological sparring match, but we’re dead wrong. “Disgraced” is a prickly examination of inherent prejudice in post-9/11 America, a challenging and angry show that you should see. Just brace yourself.