“That was intense!” one theatergoer exhaled moments after the lights went up at the conclusion of the San Diego Rep’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. Point well taken. Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning one-act is inflated with tension to the point of bursting. Its combative characters, flexing ego and righteousness, go from vitriol to volatility in the course of one fateful dinner party. While the audible gasping from certain audience members on opening night was annoying, it’s fair to say that Disgraced is a play that you can’t help but get involved in.
The story’s focal character is Amir (Ronobir Lahiri), a Pakistan-born New York attorney with all the trappings of corporate success (Upper East Side dream flat, gorgeous artist wife, $600 dress shirts). But he’s a man deeply conflicted about his Muslim identity. More than once he’s justifiably called out for being “self-loathing.” His wife Emily (Allison Spratt Pearce) has gone earnestly overboard embracing Islam because it is at the core of her newly discovered artistic ethos. This has intrigued (on more than one level, it turns out) the self-loving art curator Isaac (Richard Baird), a Jew, who happens to be married to an African-American associate (Monique Gaffney) at Amir’s law firm.
About a third of the way through the 90-minute play directed by Michael Arabian, the “festivities” at Amir and Emily’s apartment begin. That’s when Disgraced, already simmering in polemics, heats up. Charges of ignorance, hypocrisy, bigotry and hatred explode. Epithets and even saliva fly. Loaded confidences more personal than political are exposed.
What might have been chaotic is, in Akhtar’s intelligent and human script, bitingly thoughtful drama. Each character has his or her flaws. A self-described “cultural Muslim” himself, Akhtar does not take sides or preach an agenda. The one miscalculation may be the subplot featuring M. Keala Milles, Jr. as Amir’s eventually radicalized nephew. Intended to exacerbate Amir’s inner conflict, it feels wedged in.
Disgraced is one of the most often produced plays in the U.S. Possessed as it is of currency, insight and shock value, that’s understandable.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.