Amir (Alex Purcell), a corporate lawyer, and Emily (Roya Shanks), a painter, live in an expensive apartment high over Manhattan, with tall windows and haut-Orientalist décor, Moorish-cum-Art-Deco ceiling lamps. Emily, who is white, is fascinated by Islam and has been using its forms in her paintings, but Amir, born to Pakistani immigrants, denounces his ancestral religion. This tension between them is but the first of many in Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning conflagration about race, religion, and representation. Portland Stage presents a sharp and vigorously paced production, directed by Christopher Grabowski.
Akhtar, an American playwright himself and born to Pakistani immigrants, intricately constructs the racial and religious tensions of Disgraced. Emily is vigilant about racist slights against Amir that he himself shrugs off. Amir resists the pleas of his nephew Abe (Salar Ardebili) to help an imprisoned imam. And Amir is not so keen on Emily’s new art — particularly her portrait of him, à la Velazquez’s portrait of the slave Juan de Pareja. But the biggest catastrophes of the play (as with many recent Pulitzer winners) hinge on one dinner party, when Amir and Emily host gallerist Isaac (Jonas Cohen), who plans to exhibit Emily’s new work, and his wife Jorie (Robin Payne), who works with Amir. Isaac is Jewish and Jorie is black, and what might sound like the set up to an identity-politics joke winds up being far more bitter and outrageous.
Purcell’s handsome, arrogant, self-consciously alpha Amir is well-paired with the more measured and idealistic Emily, whom Shanks ranges between nurturing, sexy, and self-righteous. Sometimes the couple shares a sly, sensual connection; other times they look across the room at each other like they aren’t in the same dimension. Ardebili’s young Abe, slurring and plaintive, is endearingly loose-limbed against Amir’s harder-edged words and his svelte but aggressive movements.
Then there’s the party. Its tensions depend on constantly shifting alliances and characterizations that frequently re-calibrate our sympathies. And Grabowski’s actors make their faux-chummy banter and veiled condescension not just convincing but electrically entertaining. Isaac navigates between entitled magnanimity, affront, and contempt, and sassy Jorie speaks her mind with no-nonsense wryness (“Moor?” she says laconically, brows raised. “I haven’t heard that word in a minute.”). And Emily’s ethics, love, and self-interest are equally tangible as they tie her in knots while she is trying to keep everything civil.
Akhtar instructs that Disgraced be performed “allegro con brio”, without letting it get slogged down by “the ideas,” and these actors pull it off. As conversation ranges between the Koran, constitutional originalism, and Mormons, they expertly raise, hold, loosen, and spike the tension. Behind every “idea” is a need, insecurity, or desire. Islam “happens to be one of the great spiritual traditions,” says Isaac, every bit the self-satisfied liberal, and Amir responds, high on his own condescension, “You must be reading Rumi.” There’s talk of the TSA, wife-beating, the veil in France, and how Amir felt about Islam on 9/11. It’s all smart and emotionally grounded. It’s also a lot — race and religion are never off-stage. Each new stroke of race-infused chaos, ironically, winds up setting off a rather neatly symmetrical catastrophe.
Ultimately, everyone in this play proves flawed, selfish, self-deluded or naïve, but the one most scorched in a crucible of forces is Amir. The fate Akhtar writes for him will prove contentious to some. Does Amir fulfill the stereotypes he himself denounced? Is he a victim of racial forces beyond his control, or of his own self-loathing and rage? It is hard to say, and it is only at the end of the play that the man really looks at his own portrait.
Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar | Directed by Christopher Grabowski; produced by Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland | Through May 21 | www.portlandstage.org
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