Disgraced. I have been thinking about this word ever since I saw this play. If you take it at face value is 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, a 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.
By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior
WITH: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Danny Ashok (Abe) and Karen Pittman (Jory).
Sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Jill BC Du Boff; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes; technical supervisor, Juniper Street Productions; company manager, Edward Nelson; associate producer, Gregg Christenson; executive producer, Marisa Sechrest; general manager, Foresight Theatrical/Allan Williams. Presented by the Araca Group, Lincoln Center Theater, Jenifer Evans, Amanda Watkins, Richard Winkler, Rodger Hess, Stephanie P. McClelland, Tulchin/Barner Productions, Jessica Genick, Jonathan Reinis, Carl Levin/Ashley de Simone/TNTDynamite Productions, Alden Bergson/Rachel Weinstein, Greenleaf Productions, Darren Deverna/Jere Harris and the Shubert Organization and David Merrick Arts Foundation. At the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street, Manhattan, 212-239-6200, disgracedonbroadway.com. Through Feb. 15. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.