Curtain Critic: ‘Disgraced’ at the Herberger is not only good, but important

Courtesy of Tim Fuller.

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Courtesy of Tim Fuller.
Courtesy of Tim Fuller.

Rating (out of four stars): ★★★★

In the aftermath of the attacks on Paris and Beirut, Arizona Theatre Company’s production of “Disgraced” at the Herberger Theater Center, directed by David Ira Goldstein, is more poignant than ever.

The play, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winner fresh off the Broadway stage, explores the potential for prejudice in a variety of forms and contexts and provides a fully visceral visual representation of what can happen when conflicting ideas about race are forced into the open.

And, quite honestly, I don’t think it could have been done any better.

Amir Kapoor — played by Elijah Alexander — is a lawyer in New York struggling to forget his past as a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, but his American wife, Emily — played by Allison Jean White — who is fascinated with Islam tradition, isn’t making that any easier. Neither is his nephew, Abe — played by Vandit Bhatt — who constantly tries to remind Amir of his duty to Islam.

Things get complicated when Amir and Emily have a couple of friends over for dinner to celebrate Emily’s upcoming exhibition of Islam-inspired art. Over Scotch, fennel salad, pork tenderloin and a carb-heavy appetizer plate, shocking confessions are made, punches are thrown and two marriages start to unravel at the seams.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a sucker for nuance, for stories told purely through carefully selected dialogue and subtle changes in tone. Akhtar’s play has all of that — plus drama. Pure, unadulterated drama; the kind that makes you gasp and shiver and draws you to the very edge of your seat.

At the play’s outset, I was intrigued by the subject matter but didn’t expect to be thrilled. Alexander and White’s affectionate banter in the opening scene didn’t particularly impress me; it seemed rigid, far too inauthentic.

Until the events of the play began to expose the fault lines in Amir and Emily’s marriage. Then, a switch flipped in my head: Their happy relationship was supposed to be an act, and Alexander and White were doing a damn good job of acting fake.

As the play went on, each continued to show an utterly complete understanding of the different sides of their respective characters. No emotional transition seemed strange. The hidden feelings of each character simply and naturally find their way out.

Alexander and White were matched by an equally adept pair: Richard Baird and Nicole Lewis, who played Isaac and Jory, the couple’s business associates. These two, as well, demonstrated an ability to react authentically to increasingly dramatic events as the play unfolded.

Bhatt, too, showed serious chops. His portrayal of Abe’s transformation from youthful earnestness to bitter disillusionment was a defining part of the story.

The beautiful set by John Ezell, complete with a screened outdoor patio where the audience could view actors in intimately personal moments, deserves a shout-out. So do the elaborate props, which included several of Emily’s paintings and fake blood effects that constituted one of the play’s most memorable moments.

The most lasting takeaway, though, is not the play’s visually stunning elements, but how it makes you think.

Though Akhtar addresses meaningful, provocative issues, his writing doesn’t make you feel obligated to think a certain way. In fact, the conflicts between characters come from myriad different perspectives on race, identity and social versus cultural duty. Each of the characters is flawed; no one is the hero.

“I can’t be a spokesman for anything other than my own concerns … and if I’m bringing any political awareness to that process, that mitigates my freedom,” Akhtar is quoted in the show’s program.

The play brings up complex issues about race and culture that are important to examine at such a crucial moment in world history. This weekend, over 100 people died in France as victims of a religiously-motivated terrorist attack. On Monday, our state’s governor demanded that the flow of refugees into Arizona be stopped.

At a time like this, Akhtar’s play is crucially important to see. Especially when ATC’s production of it is so stinking good. “Disgraced” will be showing at Herberger through Nov. 29.

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