Questions of ethnic, religious, nationalistic, and cultural identity plague the central character in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which is currently being staged at Capital Stage. Mr. Akhtar is no apologist for Islamist terrorism, but his play suggests that assimilation in pursuit of the “American dream” may be more difficult when one’s core identity is fixed to the point of being almost immutable. The one-act play has been directed by Cap Stage producing artistic director Michael Stevenson, who benefits from a strong cast and a powerful script that won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Broadway production received a Tony nomination for best play in 2014.
The story centers on Amir, a Muslim apostate, who is looking to make partner in the law firm where he is a mergers-and-acquisitions expert. His wife, Emily, is an artist whose work focuses on Islam. Her career is on the rise, partly due to a relationship she has fashioned with Isaac, a New York Jew who is the curator at a major museum. Isaac is married to Jory, an African-American woman who is also a rising attorney in the same firm as Amir. After these four are introduced in early scenes, they join for a dinner, hosted by Amir and Emily.
A fifth character, while not at the dinner, has a role is setting the stage for the fireworks that develop during it. He is Amir’s nephew Abe (birth name Hussein), and he appears in an early scene to request his uncle’s legal assistance for the imam of Abe’s mosque. The imam has been arrested for allegedly aiding terrorist activities. Amir wants no part of the case, but Emily urges him to offer some support, even if he doesn’t take an active role as attorney of record. The dinner takes place after the role he chooses to take in the case is noted in the press.
There is a basic contrivance in the way Mr. Akhtar sets up the dinner conversation, what with a Muslim apostate, his very Anglo wife who is PC on Islam, the Jewish museum curator and his very up-scale African-American wife all sitting for dinner in a posh New York apartment. It seems almost too natural that their conversation quickly turns to incendiary topics like Islamist terrorism, religious fanaticism, racial profiling, the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Benjamin Netanyahu. But it all works to set up the play’s shocking denouement, which drives home the play’s theme and then some, although, for our tastes, it would have been more impressive if it had been delivered a little more subtly. (The display of physical violence seemed, to us, heavy-handed and unnecessary to make the playwright’s point.)
The Capital Stage cast is led by Adam El-Sharkawi as Amir. His portrayal captures the anguish beneath the surface of a highly-driven upwardly mobile Pakistani-American who seemingly has it all. Jennifer Le Blanc plays his wife. Her best scenes occur in the play’s denouement, and she delivers them believably. Michael Patrick Wiles and Atim Udoffia are the other couple. Both acquit themselves well, although Ms. Udoffia makes Jory seem less significant in the dinner conversation than the script may intend her to be. Benjamin T. Ismail plays Abe/Hussein more effectively in his second appearance in the play than in his first, perhaps because his character is more self-confident at that point.
Mr. Stevenson’s direction builds the dramatic tension effectively with the ultimate revelation that blows up the dinner delivered as shockingly as the playwright undoubtedly intended. The excellent scenic design of Amir and Emily’s apartment is by Stephen Decker (with the furniture and set dressing by Thom Green).
Ron Madonia is responsible for the lighting design. Rebecca Redmond handled the costumes. And the production gets a most significant boost from the music that bridges the scenes. Credit there goes to Ed Lee.
“Disgraced” is a powerful drama that definitely doesn’t pull its punches. It hits hard on current issues of significance and harder still on how those issues can plague those who are trying to overcome their own preconditioned identities.
Performances of “Disgraced” continue at Capital Stage on Wednesday evenings (7:00), Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings (8:00), and Saturday and Sunday afternoons (2:00) through June 5. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464), and online (capstage.org).