Disgraced. I have been thinking about this word ever since I saw this play. If you take it at face value, it means that a person has been removed from grace, or that grace has been removed from their life. But in Ayad Akhtar’s play, it appears that grace was never really present.
Amir (Hari Dhillon) and his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) have been living a dream life that looks pretty perfect. He is a of Pakistan heritage, high-powered mergers and acquisitions lawyer who began life as a District Attorney. These days he is ready to rip out someone’s guts to save a deal. She is as white as white can get, a painter with a liberal view point who has recently become enamored of Islamic traditions, culture and art work. This is a thin-ice area as Amir has put distance between himself and the prejudices of Islam. He thinks.
When his nephew Abe – formerly Hussein Malik – (Danny Ashok) asks him to look into the trial of an imam accused of collecting money to give to Hamas, Amir refuses. He has already visited the imam in jail and spent the entire time refusing the imam’s invitation to pray. When he is pushed it is clear that he does not welcome anyone’s opinion of his relationship with Islam, nor does he want to discuss any aspect of same. Period.
When he relents and attends the hearing, he is quoted out of context by the New York Times, making it appear that he is on the legal team for the imam. Things start to crumble.
And frankly this is where it started to crumble for me. Emily’s reaction to the misquote in the Times could not be any more innocent. She congratulates him on doing the right thing with no recognition that there is Danger-Will-Robinson anywhere on the horizon. Are these two not a team? Her mind apparently is on an interview with a friend, Isaac (Josh Radnor) who is a Whitney curator interested in her work. Isaac arrives, Amir leaves, and Emily gives Isaac, and us, a verbal essay on the value of Islamic culture. That comes across like a PBS series: The Muslims gave us Aristotle. Without their translations? We wouldn’t have him. I mean, without the Arabs? We wouldn’t even have visual perspective.
Isaac instantly becomes an admirer of her work although the painting hanging on the wall is tepid at best. They talk of an art festival in London they will soon be attending and leave for Emily’s studio.
Three months later Isaac and his wife Jory (Karen Pittman) who is a colleague of Amir’s, arrive for dinner with Amir and Emily. What follows is a not so believable descent into a mudwrestling mess that pits race, culture, religion and sex against each other and then lights a match. Once again we get more education on the Quran, which is not such a bad idea, but coming from the mouth of a man who has renounced his religion, it is odd. In addition there are secrets revealed so quickly that they pile up like an avalanche and the scene nearly topples over from the weight.
The evening blows up in everyone’s faces, but not before a career suicide and a chunk of physical violence.
In the final scene Amir and Emily are no longer a couple, and Amir is packing boxes. Abe returns with Emily to get Amir’s help. Abe has been picked up by the FBI after being in Starbucks with a noisy friend who was using a loud voice to predict that America had more coming in the way of 9/11 attacks. It is a scene that does little except to underscore that Amir’s life is a mess and his family is in a predicament. There is no hope for him and Emily, and the sad story comes to a close.
While my hat is off to Ayad Akhtar for tackling these subjects, I was left untouched by the characters. Each seems painted with a broad stroke to the extent that they are iconic. They lack the nuggets of lumps and bumps that make people unique. The layers of experience and life lessons are not visible. Therefore they remain remote and unconnected.
The characters deliver the story, and that is what stays with us. But there is no heart or passion or vulnerability to reach in and grab us where we live. And where we live is what Akhtar is examining. I look forward to his future work and hope that he will let his next characters run wild long enough to let their hearts explode and surprise even the author.
"Mr. Akhtar packs an impressive amount of smart, heated talk — as well as a few surprising twists, including a shocking burst of violence — into the play’s taut duration."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Blunted by contrivances, the impact of 'Disgraced' isn’t as sharp — or as potentially dangerous — as it could be."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Akhtar’s portrayal of Manhattan’s entitled elite often is deliciously mean — that it comes through in this declawed production says a lot."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Ayad Akhtar's 90-minute drama about the role of religion, politics and identity in our terror-ridden world has flaws but it is extremely provocative."
Roma Torre for NY1
""Disgraced," which races by in less than 90 minutes, is not a comforting play. It forces us to reflect on who we are, and what we really think about the guy with the different race, religion or ethnicity who lives next door."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"The play presents some intriguing, incisively-written arguments regarding cultural issues that compensate for the overabundance of ironic twists that gradually befall Amir."
Michael Sommers for New Jersey Newsroom
"If 'Disgraced' has sacrificed some of its edge in the move to a commercial mainstage, it’s nonetheless a stimulating, sobering work from a distinctive new American playwright."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"An intellectually engaging play on a politically provocative topic."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...