Disgraced Powerfully Tests Our Tolerance in a Thrilling Production

Christy Watkins and Gopal Divan in 4th Wall's production of Disgraced.
Christy Watkins and Gopal Divan in 4th Wall's production of Disgraced. Photo by Gabriella Nissen
It’s hard to pick what feels the most, well, disgraceful, in Ayad Akhtar’s taut and disturbingly powerful 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Disgraced. Is it the fact that out of a mixture of self-hatred and a desperate desire to be accepted by white New York society and the Jewish-run law firm he works at, high-powered corporate attorney Amir Abdullah has changed his Muslim surname to the more Indian-sounding Kapoor? What about the fact that he harbors vitriolic animus when it comes to his own people and faith yet still admits to having felt a certain wash of pride when 9/11 happened and “his people” won for once.

Amir’s white wife, Emily, a painter on her way to great success, also behaves in ways that makes us cringe. Her art practice naively fetishizes Islam while claiming cultural insight in the most privileged western manner. She doesn’t understand why Amir isn’t a fan of her work. More upsettingly, she can’t grasp why Amir might not want to get involved with his potentially radicalized nephew's mission to free an Imam accused of collecting money for terrorists. Don’t you want to help an innocent man, she asks with earnest haughtiness, blind to the serious workplace implications and emotional turmoil that involvement in this case would mean for Amir.

The couple’s friends and colleagues, African-American Jory (a lawyer at Amir’s firm) and her Jewish husband, Isaac (an art curator), aren’t any better. Jory may have grown up in the projects, but she now has a Kissinger sign up over her desk, talks about her belief in order over justice and belittles Muslim women who choose to wear a veil in Western society. Isaac talks the game of a Jewish liberal intellectual, but underneath his platitudes that Islam is a beautiful culture corrupted by a mere handful of fundamentalists lies a man that if pushed the right way will call all Muslims “animals.”

But here’s what’s so compellingly smart about Disgraced – rather than allowing us to be appalled by these flawed characters, Akhtar makes us question whether or not on some level we understand and possibly even agree or empathize with each one of them. After all, it is extremely fraught to be an American Muslim in a post-9/11 Islamophobic world. It takes work and awareness not to let one’s white liberal guilt make one act like an ass. An African-American woman who has worked so hard to make it in a white man’s world most certainly is allowed to define a survival philosophy for herself. A Jewish man, when faced with anti-Semitic rhetoric, will naturally recoil and react.

All these questions and confrontations play out in the luxury flat owned by Amir and Emily (simply rendered in the Studio 101 small space by set designer Kevin Rigdon and prop master Sarah Powell) with crisp white exposed brick walls, white leather Herman Miller-style chairs, accents of glass and chrome and tasteful art books everywhere. And while all the action leads up to a blisteringly heated dinner party scene between the couples, Disgraced is far from your standard dining-room play. Yes, secrets are uncovered among the gang, but these are not characters interested in hashing things out for our intellectual enjoyment. Instead, Akhtar’s play is violent and linguistically raw, moving the traditional dining-room play from all talk to talk plus shocking action.

And did I mention that this edge-of-your-seat, constantly in motion, 85-minute production is at times quite funny? Of course, knowing that Kim Tobin-Lehl is directing, is there any doubt that this is an intense play about penetrating issues with a dash of comedy mixed in? Tobin-Lehl is the master of these kinds of plays (I give you her superlative cracks at last season’s True West and Lobby Hero as evidence), and here she rises to her own reputation, directing with urgency and perpetual traction.

Her cast makes the job all the easier. As Amir, Gopal Divan’s uptight, wound-tighter-than-a-drum edginess is the perfect delivery for a man trying to keep a lid on the simmering anger caused by his self-suppressive efforts to fit in. Christy Watkins is a marvel as a well-intentioned, neo-hippie, superior idealist, earnest to the core and utterly unaware of how clueless she is. Michelle Elaine wows us with her dual sides of Jory – the sarcastic joker, poking not so pleasant fun at her husband and then as an angry woman shamed later in the play. Philip Lehl uses his easy, bantering manner to bring Isaac alive in all his contradictions, at one moment endearing him to us with his humor and then repelling us with his venom and deceit.

In the lead-up to the show, director Tobin-Lehl touted the fact that while Disgraced was the most-produced play in the American 2015/16 season, 4th Wall’s production was one of the few to be staged in such a small and intimate space. Having seen the original production on Broadway, I can say that this most certainly is a differentiating factor – for the better.

While I liked the Broadway show, somehow something felt missing to me. Yes, Akhtar’s script and messages were exigent and the show was excitingly fast-paced, but the whole thing left me a bit cold. Now, having seen it in a space so intimate that I could have sneezed and possibly (embarrassingly) sprayed every actor onstage, I’m utterly sold on the whole thing.

Being up close to characters, so knowingly or unknowingly conflicted, raised the stakes by a mile. It made the rawness feel more personal. It made the jabs more painful. And while the climactic violent scene, so brutally staged on Broadway to the extreme, was unfortunately toned down in this production, the show managed to feel more deeply violent than the original. Fists may not have flown in the same manner, but in these close quarters, sticks and stones gave way to words and ideas packing the hurt.

Some may question whether this kind of disturbance is the thing one should see post-Harvey. Haven’t we had enough heartbreak, upset and uproar already? Don’t we need entertaining fluff right now? Yes, there is a definite place and need for that presently. But natural disaster shouldn’t stop us from asking tough questions and enjoying excellent, challenging drama.

Besides, who among us that can make it out to the theater doesn’t want a topic to chew on during post-show drinks that doesn’t have to do with water or cleanup? Who doesn’t want a thrill ride of a play that actually has something to say? Something to think about. It doesn’t mean you don’t go back out there tomorrow and help remove drywall or donate underwear or pledge to the Red Cross. It just means for 85 minutes, you give some of the best artists in Houston your attention. Oh, and bring a donation. 4th Wall is collecting items to give to shelters in need. So you see, art and charity in one. It’s a win-win.

Performances of Disgraced continue through September 30 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring. For information, call 832-786-1849 or visit $17 - $53

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman