I had seen the Broadway production of "Disgraced", and was intrigued to see how Huntington Theatre Company would adapt this controversial Pulitzer Prize winning play to its stage. Under the brilliant direction of Gordon Edelstein, this current production stands on its own in terms of delivering the punches to the gut and challenges to the brain that were intended by the immensely talented playwright Ayad Akhtar.
As I often do when I enter a theater, I scrutinize the set for clues of what I might expect when the action commences. As is always the case with Huntington productions, Lee Savage's Set Design beautifully evokes the home of an affluent couple on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. An important feature of the set is a large and prominent painting that hangs on the wall of Amir and Emily's apartment. During the fade to black between scenes, the painting is lighted with slightly different hues and intensity of illumination, subtly saying to the viewer: "As this play develops, you will never look at Islam or at these characters in the same light again."
In like manner, through a brilliant collaboration among Playwright, Director and Set Designer, the back wall of the apartment features a large porcelain elephant with gold tusks. Even before a word is spoken, we are foretold to expect that the action of the play may include "an elephant in the room" being addressed. We can expect that someone's tusks will be used for attacking, defending - or both.
Costumes by Ilona Somogyi help to establish the time of the action and the personalities of the five characters. The Lighting Design of Eric Southern is worthy of special note, for its complexity and subtlety illuminate an important motif in this play. Early in the first act, Emily and Isaac are having an intense conversation about her view of Islamic art. She encourages him to someday visit a certain gallery in the Tate Museum. She says something along the lines of: "You will never look at art in the same way again." In other words, she is hinting that he will see things in a new light. The motif repeats in a different key.
The play treats multiple layers of issues, but at the heart of the matter is the unresolved conflict within the soul of Amir regarding his Muslim Pakistani heritage and his current role as a successful and sophisticated New York attorney in a Jewish law firm. He has rejected his faith on intellectual and cultural grounds, and as the narrative of the play develops, he finds himself not only in conflict with himself and his unresolved dissonances, but in conflict with, and torn asunder from, every other character in the play. As several layers of "Disgrace" descend upon him - due to his own actions and prompted by misinterpretations of the part of others of his actions - we see him slowly crumble, then erupt in rage, and then finally, pause to look at himself - and at a painting of himself - as if for the first time.
This is a difficult play to "enjoy," for it raises thorny issues, and Mr. Akhtar refuses to let us off the hook by resolving those tensions. He demonstrates not only a very profound understanding of how to tell a compelling story, but he also displays moral courage in tossing into the boiling cauldron of conflict among the characters complex problems that are not easily resolved. As is often the case with great art, this play forces the sentient audience member to struggle to know just what to think and how to feel as the play reaches its denouement. For in the end, it is not only Amir who suffers disgrace, but Emily, Abe, Isaac and Jory each taste some form of personal, marital or professional disgrace.
Mr. Akhtar was present for a Talk Back session after the performance ended. His thoughtful answers to a variety of questions served to solidify him in my mind as an artist who is not only well read and broadly educated, but also keenly observant of the human condition. He is also transparently self-aware. I was moved to immediately log into my Amazon account and purchase several of his other works.
Rajesh Bose as Amir, Nicole Lowrance as Emily
Shirine Babb as Jory, Benim Foster as Isaac
Huntington Theatre Company
- Rajesh Bose as Amir, the disgraced attorney whose world is crumbling around him.
- Nicole Lowrance as his wife Emily, striving to mark her mark as an artist.
- Mohit Gautam as Abe, Amir's nephew. He is struggling with his own identity issues.
- Benim Foster as Issac, an art dealer who is helping to advance Emily's career.
- Shirine Babb as Jory, Isaac's wife and Amir's colleague and rival at the law firm.
Huntington Theatre Website