At the beginning of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced – the play which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize – Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) surely seems to “have it all”: a high-powered law career, mentoring by one of the name partners at his mergers-and-acquisitions firm; a spacious, elegant apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (John Lee Beatty’s set will strike envy into the heart of any NYC apartment-dweller); a beautiful, accomplished, younger wife whose painting career is about to take off; even a contact who can help his wife’s career—the husband of one of Amir’s closest colleagues is a curator at the Whitney Museum.
But over the course of a tight 90 minutes (and a period of about six months in the play’s time-frame), we see Amir’s life slowly crumble. The first warning sign, a racist encounter with a waiter, spurs the opening scene, in which Amir poses for a portrait by his wife, Emily (played by Gretchen Mol). Amir’s pose—classic shirt and tie on the upper half of his body, but no pants (she’s painting only his torso) is the first sign that all he’s achieved may be only a veneer, something that can be, and will be, stripped away.
Raised Muslim by immigrant parents, Amir is now, as he says, going through a phase of “intelligence” rather than religion. Still, at the urging of his nephew (who is more devout yet has changed his name to Abe Jensen to avoid the constant flak of being named “Hussein”), Amir attends a hearing for an imam accused of funding terrorism. When his presence at the hearing is reported in The New York Times, all of a sudden things start to shift: his bosses question him, distance grows between himself and Emily. He can’t prove it’s because of a focus on his Muslim background, but he can’t disprove it either.
The tensions come to a head at a dinner party meant to be celebrate Emily’s acceptance into a major museum show; there are major unhappy revelations about Amir’s career, and the party degenerates into rampant viciousness all around. Even though the dynamics of the fight feel more cut-and-dried, and therefore less insidious, than what’s been happening to Amir outside the apartment, the two come together in a combustible mix. There are echoes of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage here, though played as tragedy rather than farce with stakes which are significantly higher for all the characters, refracted by the differences of race, culture, and history.
Kimberly Senior’s taut direction and the steely, contained performances by the four actors (Dhillon and Mol, as well as the guests: Amir’s colleague and rival Jory, played by Karen Pittman, and her husband, curator Isaac, played by Josh Radnor) make this central scene genuinely shocking, as everyone’s behavior keeps descending past the point you thought would be their lowest. While all four keep turning up the intensity throughout the scene, Senior smartly highlights differences in energy: Dhillon and Radnor are almost too eager to get into it, relishing the chance to win an epic argument (and relishing this particular rival, since each of them has a complicated but intimate relationship with the other’s wife). Mol and Pittman both hang back to an extent, but Pittman’s restraint feels calculated—she’s determined to keep this light until she just can’t anymore—while Mol seems to genuinely believe peace can be kept.
There’s something a little aggressively, self-consciously topical in the way the conflicts are parceled among the scene’s four players: a Pakistani-American ex-Muslim man, a white Jewish man, an African-American woman, and the blondest of white American women. Certain elements of the play seem set up just to be knocked down—for example, Emily’s naïve fascination with the artistic legacy of Islam, which has transformed her work, alongside her husband’s not just renunciation but passionate denunciation of that faith. Akhtar seems to be guiding us down a carefully constructed path alongside Amir, only to leave us shocked when he crosses a line in an unambiguous way that seems to almost demand the audience turn on him, begin to see him as an “other,” an “animal,” an outsider.
At the same time, Akhtar queries what makes Amir that outsider. Is he mistrusted because he’s Muslim, or because he’s genuinely untrustworthy? When Mort, his mentor, tells Jory that Amir is duplicitous—we can see that as a racist, Orientalist stereotype, or we can see it as a simple description of Amir’s behavior. We constantly learn of more lies Amir has told: out of self-protection or out of a shifty personality? Is his bombast a defense against hard truths or simply pompous oratory? Emily and Isaac and Jory have also told lies, withheld information, and have not paid nearly so high a price for it—but then again, they don’t seem to delight in combat the way Amir, at least at first, does. That slipperiness underlies everything we think we know.
And alongside all of this is a dynamic that seems perhaps more interesting for being less on the surface. Amir’s collapse—the state of inarticulate foaming rage he’s reduced to—has as much to do with his thwarted masculinity as any “tribal” characteristics of his ethnic identity. He’s being threatened as a man—fractures in his marriage, mistrust at his job, his mentor turning away from him. No one else in the play aspires to that ideal of American manhood quite the way Amir does—certainly not Isaac, with his high-powered lawyer wife—and a threat to it hits him hard.
It’s an ideal of manhood that seems to me to be often at the heart of classic American realist drama; Akhtar’s engagement with that history, and his complicating of that history by shifting its focus away from the white nuclear family, seems more provocative than the piece’s surface provocations.
The Exeunt review of the UK production of Disgraced.