Ayad Akhtar’s political drama Disgraced first played off-Broadway in 2012 and received strong notices for its intense look at a high-powered New York City mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer named Amir Kapoor. Though born in a Muslim home, Amir has not merely let his religion go: He actively despises its principles and precepts. His WASPy wife, Emily, is an up-and-coming artist who explores Islamic traditions and their effect on Western art.
Through happenstance, Amir becomes linked to an American iman who has been arrested on terrorist charges. That misunderstood linkage begets trouble; at first it’s little tremors, but soon ripples turn into big waves, from both external and internal forces, leaving swaths of carnage behind.
Following the off-Broadway production, the show opened in 2014 on Broadway to great reviews and even nabbed a Pulitzer Prize. But it turned out to be more favored by critics than audiences and closed in two months.
Pittsburgh Public Theater presents the local premiere in a production directed by Tracy Brigden, giving Pittsburgh audiences a chance to see what all the fuss was about.
From the start you’re hit by Akhtar’s fierce intelligence and ruthlessly concise voice. This intermissionless play hurtles out of the gate and doesn’t stop until the finish line. There’s not an ounce of fat, and Brigden drives the show with similar propulsion and direct energy.
For a long time, however, you strain to love Disgraced. Akhtar’s focus on Muslim self-identity and the explosive personal cost of Islamophobia are important, necessary topics and rarely, if ever, addressed in the theater. His ideas can be illuminating and his anger bracing and insightful.
The strain, however, proves to be too much. Akhtar hasn’t written actual people, just mouthpieces with points of view. The bulk of the play is a small dinner with Amir and Emily and their guests Isaac, Emily’s Jewish art-dealer, and Jory, Isaac’s African-American wife and a lawyer who works with Amir. It’s so nakedly a calculation at inclusion it never doesn’t feel like a Benetton ad.
And once they get going? Each character possesses one thing they should absolutely not utter at this party … and what do you think happens? For all his high-caliber political and cultural insight, Akhtar’s handling of the “revelations” seems woefully ham-fisted. By the time we get to the spilling of some soapy secrets, I’d stepped out of the play entirely; I just couldn’t get past the screaming artificiality.
It’s maybe not surprising that the actors weren’t entirely successful in grounding their characters; it’s a big ask Akhtar makes of his cast — bring a humanity to roles which he failed to provide. But Fajer Kaisi and Lisa Velten Smith, as Amir and Emily, with Ryan McCarthy and Nafeesa Monroe as their guests, play with intelligence and rock-solid commitment.
I should say that my trouble with the script’s inauthenticity doesn’t seem to apply to everyone. My date for the evening, for instance, kept gnawing away the show’s issues. So if you judge the success of a play by the conversation about it on the car ride home (all in all, not a bad barometer), then perhaps the Public has a hit on its hands with Disgraced after all.