note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Daniel Gewertz
A Review by Daniel Gewertz
The Pulitzer Prize has been, for the most part, a journalism award, and there has been longtime criticism that the selections in the drama category regard plays of social significance more highly than those of a more 'pure' literary excellence. That argument could be made for the selection of the 2013 winner, Disgraced, by Ayah Akhtar. Currently being presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Disgraced concerns the perilous plight of Manhattan corporation lawyer Amir, a self-described apostate of the Muslim faith, a Pakistani-American who not only regularly rails against the fanaticism of his former religion, but has gone so far as to change his last name in order to pass as an Indian. Amir shares his upscale apartment with his blond, fashionable all-American wife, a contemporary artist whose abstract paintings are currently obsessed with Muslim images.
Issues such as artistic cultural appropriation, Orientalism, the fear and hatred of Muslims after 9-11, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, tribal-loyalty and culturally-based self-loathing dot the landscape of this play like dots dominate the paintings of Georges Seurat. The issues and themes themselves are clearly fascinating: at a recent matinee performance, the audience for the after-show discussion practically filled the orchestra. It's possible that a play written by a self-critical Pakistani allows a Western audience to think about their own attitudes more freely.
Since the characters are rich lawyers, contemporary artists and world-tripping art curators, the talk is heavy with the lingo of litigation, art theory, and foodie enthusiasm. Satire is not the idea here, more like a realistic assessment of the trend-setting concerns of wealthy Manhattanites. Amir (Rajesh Bose) wears $600 shirts with "ridiculous thread counts." His wife, Emily (Nicole Lawrence) is sleekly fashionable even while painting at home. The social issues raised in "Disgraced" are multilayered and thought-provoking, even though some of the thematic complexity seems like a pile-on of dramatic contrivance. In addition to the Muslim/Christian marriage of Amir and Emily, the play's subsidiary couple consists of a Jew and an African-American. In a badly constructed subplot, Amir's young nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam) apparently gets radicalized (off-stage) and is involved with two separate legal cases. A big, effectively explosive confrontation late in the play takes place at a dinner party that should never had occurred in the first place considering what some of the characters already knew of the powderkeg likely to explode.
Some of the issues are explored in a less heavyhanded way. The nature of disgrace is a multipronged thing here: As Amir faces a crucible that theatens to undo him, disgrace comes from both his Muslim roots and his hatred of those roots -- his apostate status. Loyalty to one's tribe is a human trait neither condemned nor lionized.
The whole play, though, is undercut by weak, stiff acting, some of it nearly amateurish. In the lead, Rajesh Bose portrays inhibition as mere stiltedness. Except for a few moments of dramatic upheaval in the play's last two scenes we simply don't get the sense of real people living private lives. Amir and Emily don't seem like a flesh and blood married couple; sensuality and chemistry are sorely missing. Bose screams and quakes with some flourish, but the big eruptions don't feel tied to an authentic breakdown of inhibitions. Though Lawrence is more effective as the artist- wife, there is a lack of intimacy in the portrayal of their marriage, a flaw especially apparent considering the action takes place entirely in their own living-room. Only Benim Foster as art-curator Isaac is loose enough to be real.
Since both Muslim characters face dark circumstances by the end of "Disgraced," the play might be considered an echo of the liberal stereotypes of 20th century dramaturgy, i.e. the tragic mulatto and the tragic gay. Considering that Velázquez's famous portrait of the Moorish slave Juan de Pareja appears prominently in the play's first scene -- and is, in fact, the model for the portrait Amir is posing for -- the archetype of the tragic Muslim appears quite purposeful. Yet since "Disgraced" lacks lacks three-dimensional characters, or a single well-adjusted Muslim, this attempt at haunting myth seems more like dogged cliche.