PTD’s "Disgraced" explores tensions in multicultural USA
Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced begins slowly but builds into a fierce confrontation and a hard breakdown in social and political correctness. This 2012 drama is hot-wired with themes that still rattle American society at all social levels.
Ypsilanti’s PTD Productions dares to jump in with a generally compelling production of an emotionally and intellectually difficult play. Director Joe York gets fine performances from his cast, even though some are a bit miscast for the roles they play. This is a topical play that is also personal and deserves an audience.
Disgraced is a 90-minute one-act production designed to build tension as it goes and not give audiences a break that diverts from the hair-trigger emotions in play.
The setting is an upscale apartment in Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side. The year is 2011, 10 years after the shattering events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Amir Kabul is a prosperous young mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer bucking for partnership. He is also the son of Pakistani immigrants. Amir was reared as a Muslim with a Muslim name, which he changed to what he perceived would be a more acceptable Indian name. He is conflicted by his background and troubled by the limits put on his own ambitions by the fight against terrorists and the scrutiny it draws on him.
Amir is married to a Euro-American artist. Where he is often dour, she is bright, enthusiastic, and ever curious. She has made a shift in her art toward building on the rich geometric designs and traditions of Islamic art. What he has rejected, she has embraced, at least culturally.
Despite his fears, Amir and Emily seem to have everything going for them. But when Amir’s nephew Abe comes around to beg for Amir’s help in supporting an imam who faces legal charges of terrorism, Amir hesitates until urged by his wife to at least show some support by attending the imam’s hearing. This one act of support has serious consequences.
The play catches fire with a small dinner party. Emily invites Isaac, a Jewish art dealer and close friend, and his African-American wife, Jory, a fellow associate in Amir’s law practice with strong ambitions of her own.
The sophisticated setting, the easy relations among a group that would seem to be naturally antagonistic -- Jew and Muslim, black and white, male and female -- and the surface respect they have for each other are mere facades. As the usual dry conversation of this wealthy and accomplished foursome goes along, the secrets and lies, the posturing and shifting positions and the tightly bottled anger overheat.
Neel Vaidya plays Amir. Vaidya handles the shift from nerdy and neurotic lawyer to angry, anguished immigrants’ son. Vaidya has some scenes where his facial expressions are too intense. But he is most effective when he lets it all out and rips through a tirade of defense for the religion he has denied for so long.
Lisa Coveney brings warmth and style to Emily. She is harboring a secret and her performance seems to suggest the underlying marital problems that never get verbalized.
Ryan McGriff is not exactly right for the role of Isaac. But he does a fine job of finding the character’s core. The character is a Jew who has replaced religion with art, but who understands that when push comes to shove, he, too, must defend his heritage. It’s in the fierce debate with Amir that McGriff captures that character.
Angelicia Morton gives the most subtle and nuanced performance as Jory. She is the true fast-track urbanite, but she is also the gently nagging wife and a black woman, beset by the prejudices holding back blacks and women. Morton has a stage presence that demands attention.
Brandon Waldenmayer plays Abe, another Muslim who has changed his name to avoid the 9-11 resentments. Waldenmayer is a bit tentative at first but he comes alive in the final scene, where he, too, embraces his heritage in a loud, emotional outburst.
The set designed by York nicely captures the look and feel of an upscale New York apartment for two successful people with a love for art
Disgraced builds slowly but is an effective portrayal of the many irritations that run through America’s complex nation of many nations, peoples, and religions. It explores conflicting ideas of terrorism, immigration, gender politics, and, in this troubled month, gun control.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
PTD Productions' "Disgraced" continues Feb. 23-26, Feb. 28 and March 1-3 at the Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St., Ypsilanti. For tickets, call 734-483-7345 or visit ptdproductions.com.