Kyra Zagorsky as Emily and Patrick Sabongui as Amir in Arts Club’s Disgraced. (photo by David Cooper)
Politics and religion generally are considered taboo topics for discussion. But, sometimes, they can’t be avoided. This is the case in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, now playing at the Stanley.
Akhtar puts four Manhattan 30-somethings – secular Muslim corporate lawyer Amir, his upwardly mobile artist Caucasian wife Emily, his African American female colleague Jory and her Jewish art gallery curator husband Isaac – together for what is intended as a celebratory meal with cocktails, fennel and anchovy salad, and designer dessert.
The progression to the fateful dinner starts rather innocently. The curtain rises on a very well- but half-dressed Amir (Patrick Sabongui) posing for Emily (Kyra Zagorsky, Sabongui’s real-life spouse) as she paints his portrait based on her inspirations from Middle Eastern art. The cozy domestic scene is interrupted by Amir’s nephew, Abe (Conor Wylie), previously known as Hussein Malik – he ditched his name to make life easier.
Abe entreats his uncle to assist a local imam who has been jailed, accused of helping finance Hamas. Amir, a self-declared apostate and proud of his apparent assimilation into Western society, wants no part of it, avowing his disdain for Islam and its culture. However, Emily and Abe pressure him into attending the court hearing, where his presence is noted by the media. Amir’s reported connection to an accused terrorist does not bode well for his partnership track at his firm of Leibowitz, Bernstein and Harris. Strike one.
As well, his law partners discover that he has misrepresented himself by saying that he was born in India instead of Pakistan and by giving his name as Kapoor instead of Abdullah. Strike two.
The fading chance of a partnership for Amir provides the background for the dinner party. The conversation starts with discussions about Emily’s new works that will be exhibited in Isaac’s gallery, the Whitney, but soon disintegrates into heated arguments over Islam. Emily defends the religion and culture while Amir declares it to be tribal, violent and totalitarian. He calls the Koran, “one long hate mail letter to humanity” and yet, in the next breath, he admits he felt some pride during the 9/11 attacks because it showed that, “we were finally winning.” Oh, oh, shades of an identity crisis … and strike three soon follows.
The play is very much a Greek tragedy with the hero’s downfall and the destruction of his “American dream.” Director Janet Wright noted in a media release that it “really hits you in the gut emotionally and leaves you questioning your own ideas and how you fit into our complicated society.”
All of the actors are very good. Sabongui is a standout as the suave, initially confident protagonist. Zagorsky develops her character from one of naivety to understanding with ease. Marci T. House and Robert Moloney provide some comic relief – and other food for thought – as Jory and Isaac, and Wylie competently portrays the confusion of a conflicted teen. The set is a swanky Upper East Side apartment with a view of the New York skyline – the mood lighting and easy music complete the effect. All in all, Disgraced is 80 uninterrupted minutes of intelligent, thought-provoking theatre that literally packs a mean punch.
Akhtar was brave to have written this critical piece, which appears to be somewhat autobiographical, and his courage and tough-minded approach have been rewarded with the play enjoying successful Broadway and West End runs and garnering the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Now, it is here for us to see, ponder and discuss – maybe over Shabbat dinner.
Disgraced runs until Oct. 18. For tickets and more information, visit artsclub.com or call 604-687-1644.
Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.