By Victoria Weisfeld
McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., is presenting Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, through October 30. The production, directed by Marcela Lorca, tells the story of four Manhattan friends with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. They are a successful, congenial group until a dinner party devolves into a series of confrontations that painfully reveal the schisms beneath the surface. It is a blistering commentary on identity politics and the nation’s most-produced play in the 2015-2016 season.
The characters are lawyer Amir (played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who has masked his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, “passing” as Indian. Amir is pressured by his wife and nephew, Hussein (Adit Dileep)—who has changed his name to the more American Abe Jensen—to look in on legal proceedings against a controversial imam accused of terrorism. Amir initially resists, fearing his act may be misinterpreted by his firm’s Jewish senior partners.
His beautiful wife Emily (Caroline Kaplan), Caucasian and apparently Christian, is a painter and in her own work is entranced with the artistic language of Islam. In turn, she entrances their Jewish friend and Whitney curator Isaac (Kevin Isola), who wants to include her paintings in a high-profile exhibit. Isaac met Emily through Jory (Austene Van), his African-American wife and another associate in Amir’s law firm.
These convoluted relationships could go wrong in many ways, and do at the ill-fated dinner party. The social landscape under their feet crumbles. By the play’s end, all of them are disgraced, one way or another, publicly or not.
It is director Lorca’s aim that the audience empathize with each of the characters. She says, “A play like Disgraced has the power to hold mirrors to us, invite us to embrace complexities, ponder our contradictions, widen our view of others, and invite us to practice empathy, one character at a time.” Her success in achieving this is evidenced by the dead silence in the theater for many seconds after the play ended and the standing ovation the cast received.
The play raises important questions about identity and self-identity, passive observer and activist, and religious and secular choices in a fragmented American society, as well as the persistent and entangling prejudices (in the original, pre-judging sense, emphasis on “judging”) that lurk inside each of us. “Who is an American?” it asks, and “Who gets to decide?” It’s a 90-minute production that rapidly moves into the quicksand of what the playwright calls our “degraded social discourse.”
Director Lorca and the cast—all except Ebrahimzadeh—began this three-city tour of Disgraced last summer at Minneapolis’s acclaimed Guthrie Theatre; the production will move from Princeton to the playwright’s home town, where it will be on stage at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater starting in January 2017.
Production credits to James Youmans (Set Design), Rui Rita (Lighting Design), Scott W. Edwards (Sound Design), Sanford Moore (Composer), Ana Kuzmanic (Costume Design), Samantha Reading (Fight Director), and Alison Cote (Production Stage Manager).