Art. Law. Religion. The Yankees. The Cubs. Banana pudding (mentioned, but not actually seen on stage).
Disgraced fits in a set of plays in which intelligent, successful people sit together and bate each other on topics like race and religion and justice and order, and eventually underlying prejudices and tensions emerge. At its best, this motif leaves the audience in a state of self-reflection that can last for days (Clybourne Park and God of Carnage are two of the best). Disgraced fits somewhere lower on the spectrum despite a promising start. Amir (Bernard White), a renounced Muslim, explains to his wife why he is not offended by people stereotyping him at the supermarket. In a powerful anecdote, Amir explains how his mother spat in his face for flirting with a Jewish girl. Now Amir is hoping to become a partner in a law firm showcasing Jewish names on its letterhead.
The bulk of the play exists within an intimate dinner gathering. Amir’s wife Emily (Nisi Sturgis) is an art dealer. Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), an influencing Jewish art curator, comes to celebrate their mutual achievements. Isaac’s wife Jory (Zakiya Young) is an African-American lawyer at Amir’s firm with slightly less seniority.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar takes this group, adds a double dose of work-related tension, and spins a conversation where civil undertones quickly recede and are replaced by dialogue that alternates between accusations and extended speeches of self-discovery. How can Amir overcome the disgraces of his ingrained religious background? How are Middle-Easterners treated in today’s “nondiscriminatory” workplaces? How did a renounced Muslim lime Amir respond to the attacks of September 11?
Akhtar won the Pulitzer Prize for Disgraced, and the work is without question a bold investigation of the uncomfortable issues that exist in a country that both praises its own open-mindedness and suspects Muslims of being terrorists. The actors portraying the four main characters are given ample material to unsheathe the complexity of their characters as the dinner-table conversation moves from civil to explosive.
However, the central conceit of the intelligent-people-having-serious-discussions-at-social-gatherings play is that external forces are great enough to push the characters to express their deep, dark feelings regardless of consequences. In Disgraced, Amir’s ranting becomes so one-sided that Emily’s constant insistences that he calm down (it’s only a dinner among friends) would most likely win out in the non-fictitious world. Amir’s ultimate breakdown may draw gasps, but it is not quite backed by the reality needed to make this play a classic.