It’s no wonder that the hot-button play “Disgraced” will be the most produced new play in America this theater season. There’s nothing I know like it. This play about an American Muslim lawyer who appears to be near the top of his game blew me away when I saw it last season on Broadway. It had the same effect on Wednesday, when I saw the opening night of a different sort of production by Philadelphia Theatre Company, which acquired the rights early on.
Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is rare among plays because it deals with being Muslim in America. “Disgraced” gives us characters who say things people generally do not utter in mixed company – and by that I mean not just men and women, but African Americans, Muslims, Jews and, to use a slightly musty label, WASPS. That mix of characters sounds loaded – yes, it is – and you’d have a point accusing the playwright of a contrived set-up. But here’s the catch: All five of his characters feel genuine.
When some of them are together, they can become explosive. A man named Amir (played by the convincing Pej Vahdat) is the chief character in “Disgraced.” He’s a pragmatist who rejects his Muslim background and believes that the Koran, despite messages that gel with those of other major religious texts, is a guide to the Stone Age. Amir is doing well in his acquisitions-and-mergers legal work, maybe even about to become a partner in the mostly Jewish-led firm. He has his own way of dealing with an America he sees as always possibly intolerant: At airports, he even volunteers himself to be searched by the TSA. “I know they’re looking at me,” he says, “so I figure, why not make it easier for everyone involved?”
Amir’s blond, white, all-American wife (Monette Magrath, in a polished performance) is an artist who’s getting noticed. And lately, possibly because of the man she’s married, she’s fallen hard for the Islamic art tradition. Islamic tiling, she says in a confusion of ideas, is “a doorway to extraordinary freedom that only comes from profound submission” – for her personally, that means submission to its formalities like pattern and repetition. “We draw on the Greeks, the Romans, but Islam is part of our tradition, too,” she tells the sincere Jewish curator (Ben Granley) who is deciding whether to put her Islamic-oriented work into a group show at the Whitney.
The curator’s not so certain about her theories but likes her art. He himself is married to a lawyer working with Amir in the same firm, a classy African-American woman (Aimé Donna Kelly) who’s a hot professional property.
They all come together at dinner, which is their downfall. But for Amir, the descent has already begun. His nephew (Anthony Mustafa Adair, excellent), a young Pakistani-born man who is becoming increasingly disaffected in America, has convinced Amir to show up in court in support of an Imam charged with terrorism because the clergyman was – on the face of it, in any case — seeking funds for his mosque. Amir’s the one who’s quoted in The Times, it turns out, and not the Imam’s Jewish lawyers of record.
What happens in “Disgraced” has as much to do with the inter-relationships of the characters as it does with their politics on everything ranging from womens’ veils to 9/11 to the policies of the Israeli government. The sudden flashpoints come and go quickly within Akhtar’s neat arc of a plot, until the full story about these people comes into focus and their lives change.
In Mary B. Robinson’s direction, the focus is not in the humor that keeps these characters likeable – the play was decidedly funnier on Broadway and the better for it in the balance. Yet in Robinson’s production, on a handsome New York apartment set by Jason Simms and with Christopher Colucci’s sensual Middle Eastern music in the interludes, the serious questions lurking in the play’s shadows come more to center stage: How do we identify who we are? How do we identify who we are not? And what are the consequences when we’re wrong?
—“Disgraced,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Nov. 8 at the company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, at Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.