A small statue of the god Shiva, destroyer of evil and transformer, sits in the center of the mantle, just underneath the abstract painting based on Islamic geometric patterns by Emily, the very Upper East Side artist wife of Amir, American born Muslim apostate and corporate lawyer in a firm owned by Jews. He stands on top of the table in their very well-appointed elegant apartment, wearing his boxer shorts and the upper half of a very expensive suit while she sketches him from a chair. She has become obsessed with a portrait by Velazquez of Juan de Pareja, his slave of Moorish descent, and wants to capture Amir in the same way Velazquez captured “truth” in his portrait.
So begins the brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar now at Road Less Traveled Theater in its Western New York premiere. The superlatives already written about this script do not exaggerate. Mr. Akhtar tackles themes of assimilation, religion, prejudice, art, and loyalty in a very smart complex, witty, surprising and entertaining 80 minutes. At the same time, the play is deeply personal, each character fully realized, where in less expert hands they might easily have devolved into stereotypes. Not the case here, as this lean script allows for full expression for each one of the five characters: Amir and Emily, and Isaac, a successful artist who may include Emily in his next show, and his wife Jory, a lawyer in the same firm as Amir, and Abe, Amir’s young nephew, the catalyst who sets in motion the action that leads to Amir’s very dark night.
The Road Less Traveled company is more than up to the task of fulfilling the demands of the play, from the beautifully designed set by Lynne Koscielniak of an expensive upper east side apartment that in its simplicity exudes wealth, the costumes by Jenna Damberger, sound by Katie Menke and lighting by John Rickus, all creating a sense of time and place, bringing us into the world of these wealthy professionals.
And then, of course, the actors.
Afrim Gjonbalaj is perfect as the handsome and refined, driven-to-succeed Amir. As the fragile edifice he has constructed to remove himself from his fundamentalist roots begins to crumble, Mr. Gjonbalaj’s Amir sheds the confident persona he has so carefully assembled revealing the fear and rage that has been boiling underneath. He is the embodiment of a man who longs to be accepted by a culture that denigrates who he is.
Kristin Tripp Kelley is excellent as the WASP Emily who has a penchant for dark men, her previous lover having been “a black Spaniard” (note the Valazquez portrait). Slender and elegant, caught in her own ambition, she lives in her intellect, oblivious to how her defense of Islam through her love of Islamic art is affecting Amir. She blithely pushes him to defend an Imam that has been arrested, shaming him into it with nary a thought of what consequence it might bring. She talks about true freedom coming only from submission, a concept she embraces intellectually, but not one she has lived.
Matt Witten and Candice Whitfield are Isaac and Jory, the couple who come to dinner. They both handle their parts with an ease that is a pleasure to watch. Mohammad Farraj does very well as Abe, the young Muslim man in search of his identity. He mumbled a bit in one conversation with Amir, but other than that was spot on.
Direction is by John Hurley, Associate Artistic Director of RLTP, who gives his fine cast all the room they need to shine, while keeping the flow of the narrative intact. His cast feel like real people, not actors on a stage playing a part.
The alcohol-fueled dinner party climax of the play is a breathtaking foray into how the fine veneer of civilized discussion of art, religion and relationships can quickly become a battleground of hidden prejudice and tribal pride, and of the realization that words spoken and actions taken always have consequences.
Disgraced is must-see theater! Kudos to playwright Ayad Akhtar and to Road Less Traveled Theater for its stellar production of his play.