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Rousuck's Review: "Disgraced" At Arena Stage

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C. Stanley Photography
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Arena Stage in Washington is now featuring the Pulitzer-prize winning play, Disgraced by AyadAkhtar. The play is set during a dinner party held by Amir, a successful son of South Asian immigrants. Dinner conversations spark Amir to question his career, culture, and identity.  Here's theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck's  review:

At first glance, it looks like the hippest, most sophisticated, intimate dinner party. Two young New York couples: The hosts are a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer and his white, artist wife; the guests are a Jewish curator at a prominent museum and his wife, an African-American corporate lawyer.

This small social gathering could be a picture of America at its best... 

You might find yourself wishing you could be a guest at this dinner party. Playwright Ayad Akhtar offers audiences the next best option. We are flies-on-the-wall, silent observers, in his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced -- the most produced new play in America this season. It’s receiving its area premiere at Washington’s Arena Stage, and at the performance I attended, the observers weren’t so silent. Several times, this fully charged production elicited gasps.

So don’t get too comfortable observing the play’s smart, urbane dinner companions. Soon enough, you’ll be glad you’re not sharing a meal with these folks. Soon enough, civility and sophistication are replaced by invective, animosity, jealousy and not-so-latent racism.

Hints of dissension surface early in the conversation, when Joe Isenberg, as the curator, describes a portrait of the play’s protagonist, Amir, painted by Amir’s wife, Emily. 

This painting is atypical for Emily, played with earnestness and heart by Ivy Vahanian. Most of Emily’s paintings have a strong Islamic influence. “It’s time…we stop paying lip service to Islam and Islamic art,” she tells the curator. “We draw on the Greeks, the Romans – but Islam is part of who we are, too.”

While Emily defends the Islamic tradition, her husband, Amir, disparages it. American-born and Muslim-raised, he calls himself an apostate. From the start, anger and resentment – partly self-resentment -- hover close to the surface in Nehal Joshi’s portrayal of Amir.

On the night of the dinner party, Amir -- irate over a turn of events at his law firm -- has been drinking before his guests arrive. By the time the dinner table talk turns to airport security and racial profiling, the ground is getting shaky.

A few minutes later, when Joe Isenberg’s rather smug curator brings up 9/11, all filters are off. The play explodes.

Playwright Akhtar inserts a plot twist in the subsequent exchange between artist and curator -- a twist that feels contrived, a convenient device to speed us to the next shocking developments.

But the heated discourse, the urgent questions the play raises and the intensity of Timothy Douglas’ direction make “Disgraced” a joltingly visceral experience.

And the play’s volatile issues – particularly immigration, identity and attitudes toward Muslims in this country – will make you think “Disgraced” debuted during the current presidential campaign, instead of four years ago.

Disgraced is intended to get you riled up, but when I left the theater, I felt sadder than I did angry – sad that what started out as a picture of America at its best, ended up as a picture of America at its most divisive. It may not be pretty picture, but it’s as topical as it is crucial.

Disgraced continues at Arena Stage in Washington through May 29th.

Audio for this segment will be available by noon today.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.