A good play has a message and uses the plot to make that message known. It creates developed characters who go through (usually) trying times and they learn something about themselves by the end of it. In turn, so does the audience. If any play is quite clear that it is challenging its audiences to learn something, it’s Disgraced, which just began its run at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The one-act play is set in the Upper East Side apartment of Amir and his wife Emily. Amir is an American-born “former Muslim” who renounced his faith to help advance his career as a lawyer. Emily is a painter who likes to use Islamic influences in her art. Amir’s nephew Abe wants his uncle to provide legal assistant to an imam (Islamic worship leader) who he believes is being falsely labeled a terrorist. After getting involved with this controversial case, Amir and Emily host a dinner for Jory, a coworker of Amir’s, and her husband Isaac, an art dealer with an interest in Emily’s work. Like most dinners you see in plays, the evening starts off cordial but emotions soon begin to rise.
Race is the central theme of this play; “race” is what you would say to someone if they wanted a one-word description. The dinner (the longest scene/climax of the play) features a Jew (Isaac), a black woman (Jory), a white woman (Emily) and an “apostate” Muslim (Amir). Many racial topics lead to conversations that create an uneasy atmosphere. Through the night some larger, more personal, issues come out and throw gasoline onto the fire.
Disgraced is directed by Tracy Bridgen, whose last Public production was the fantastic Good People. Good People had some elements of racism, intense personal drama, and examined a difference of classes. The people in Disgraced all come from the same (upper) class which hurts credibility for their arguments. The things they talk about are important, yes, but the fact they have the time to talk about them because they have so little to worry about is irksome. Emily is a pretty white woman who wears yoga pants and says things like “I know, I drink port before dinner, I’m so WEIRD!” The play acknowledges that a privileged white woman going on about Islam is going to sound condescending, but that doesn’t make it any easier to listen to. More than a few terms went over my head, especially in the second scene where Emily and Isaac discuss art. It lays down some important framework for the later scene, but it’s a little dull.
Now far be it for me to get fussy over a Pulitzer Prize-winning script (I know nothing), but some things felt a bit unnatural. While the cast has clearly developed their characters, the script makes them seem more like reliable mouthpieces for specific viewpoints. They argue a lot, but it never feels like they’re basing anything on their own experiences. Isaac disagrees with Amir about [this thing] because the play needs him to, etc. Perhaps that’s the point? These people are so upper-class and jaded with their gourmet groceries and $600 shirts that they’re more ideas than they are people? Is that what playwright Ayad Akhtar is going for? It may be. That’s how I’m interpreting it anyway.
But I’m not without compliments to this production. The climactic third scene is really a doozy, and the cast and crew pull it off beautifully. While the script gives carefully calculated opinions and leads to a somewhat predictable climax (seriously, you know how this’ll end right?) you can still feel an uncomfortable energy forming in the room. Fajer Kaisi is fantastic as Amir, who goes through the biggest downward spiral while still clinging to a few shreds of humanity. Lisa Velten Smith captures the physicality of Emily just by doing something simples as standing with her arms folded. Emily considers herself a smart and important person, and aims to show it at all times. Ryan McCarthy and Nafeesa Monroe do a great job of playing a seemingly happy couple that gets dragged into an ugly situation.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this play is that the people, and the issues, are incredibly complicated. No one is the hero and no one is the villain. Maybe you feel sorry for Amir at the end, or maybe you think he got what he deserved. It’s all about perspective. The play covers a lot of touchy situations (denouncing religion, racial profiling, 9/11, etc.) that at times can cloud whether the audience is supposed to focus on something specific. None of these characters are racist, but they’re pushed to a limit that causes them to be their ugliest selves. Is that something we all have inside of us? And, if so, is that okay?
The Public has been encouraging its audiences to talk about this play, whether in the lobby afterwards or on social media. Disgraced is the beginning of a conversation that many could benefit from having, although at times the message makes it feel less like a straightforward story. But the team involved really commits (shout outs to Phil Monat and Zach Moore for their fabulous light and sound design) and make Disgraced a mostly intense night at the theater.
Presented by the Pittsburgh Public Theater
Directed by Tracy Bridgen
Written by Ayad Akhtar
Designed by Anne Mundell (scenery), Robert C.T. Steele (costumes), Phil Monat (lighting), Zach Moore (sound)
Starring Justin Ahdoot (Abe), Fajer Kaisi (Amir), Ryan McCarthy (Isaac), Nafeesa Monroe (Jory), Lisa Velten Smith (Emily)
For tickets and more information, check out the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s website here.