Monday, October 27, 2014

Disgraced: Bearing Responsibility

A raw wound of a play that leaves you feeling pretty depressed about humanity and our efforts to see each other, our selves, and the biases plaguing us. Complex, layered, nuanced, and funny Ayad Akhtar's play is nothing short of brilliant. Rolling up on New York audiences with a knowledge of who is sitting in the audience and making sure he calls us out on our own behavior, no one can leave this play without bearing some responsibility. It's a rare thing for new theater these days and even rarer it feels like on the Broadway stage.

Amir (Hari Dhillon) and his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) appear to be a wealthy, interracial couple living the high life in New York. Amir is an M&A attorney and Emily a painter and live in an apartment to give every New Yorker envy. Emily's obsession with Islam and art puts her at odds with Amir who was raised Muslim but now views himself as an apostate.  As Emily's star rises, Amir's is starting to waver.  Things come to a head when Jory (Karen Pittman) and Isaac (Josh Radnor) come to dinner. Jory is Amir's colleague at his law firm and Isaac is an art dealer interested in Emily's work.  As the evening goes on assumptions are made about everyone at the party by the party guests (as well as the audience). But Akhtar is concerned with undermining those assumptions.

Dinner goes off the rails and Amir and Isaac go head-to-head about religion, terrorism, Israel, Islam, and almost every third rail of potential conversation.  Each takes stabs and jabs at the other, scoring points but losing sympathy, but are they speaking from their experience, parroting what others have said, meaning what they say, or riling up each other for other reasons?  Do our view of their views reflect our biases or the play's? 

Every character reveals something troubling. We have to question everyone and in doing so we have to question our own perspective of what we are seeing. When someone is offensively referred to as "an animal" in the play and then an audience member says the same thing about that character during the play (!!!) has Akhtar made his point and/or has that audience member missed the point entirely.

I feel like seeing Disgraced and The Real Thing together is instructive. They are very different plays with different points to make. But there's something about the way we wear character in each play that feels like it's coming from a similar place. The roles we play for each other (and Disgraced takes that theme further to show how race and religion can cast a light on the character we project or try to suppress)--the lies we tell the world and the lies we tell each other.  What husbands do for their wives even when it's contrary to their own interest.  What people do out of love or obsession.  What we do to hold onto something we want.  Both Stoppard and Akhtar are exploring "thinking" and "feeling" in very interesting ways.  (And maybe there's also an interesting parallel in how pop culture can be a tool of the over-educated to supplant their own ideas/emotions).

I saw Disgraced with Hari Dhillon at the Bush Theatre in London (directed by Nadia Fall) and his performance has grown tremendously with this new production under the guidance of Kimberly Senior. He always carried himself with a strength and imperiousness that worked well for the character but I thought he struggled with the humble side of the character in London.   But here he crosses that divide quite well (even if there might be some over-gesticulating on the way there).  His undoing has become very effective and he seems to shrink in size as his fortunes fall. Karen Pittman is fantastic as Jory. She's no nonsense and her marital issues are played with stinging sarcasm.  Josh Radnor makes the role of Isaac a little lighter and funnier which throws off the power balance here a little.  But Gretchen Mol's lightweight Emily is the real problem.  I think all four characters need to be very solid to keep the play's arguments, voices, and shifting alliances in balance.  Mol makes her character seem inconsequential. Kirsty Bushell in London made her a vital presence and her naïveté that is exposed by the play's end comes as a devastating shock for her whereas here it feels like a foregone conclusion since Mol's Emily seems shaky with her beliefs to begin with.

Seeing the show in New York is a whole different audience experience.  It's a lot harder to hear the conversation about September 11th here and New York audiences tend to be a lot more vocal (horrific "animal" comment aside). Nadia Fall's traverse staging in London made the dinner party feel like it was happening on your lap and I missed the shocking intimacy of that.  It feels like it has lost some intensity moving to a bigger house and in a more open staging.  But it's an important play and one that more audiences should experience.  There's no question it won't be shaken off easily.

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