By Tristan Lejeune
Disgraced, performing now until May 29 at Arena Stage, is not, thank goodness, one of those Modern Problem Plays where people shout and point their fingers a bunch, drink a lot of dark liquor, make easily avoidable mistakes, and then finish things off without much happening.
It is, however, one of those Modern Problem Plays where people shout and point their fingers a bunch, drink a lot of dark liquor and make easily avoidable mistakes. There are interesting discussions of modern art and cultural identity, but Ayad Akhtar’s script feels like its mind is made up before things ever get started. It’s Problematic.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An apostate Muslim man and lapsed Jewish one and their wives sit down for dinner in an expensive Manhattan apartment (amazing set from Tony Cisek, by the way). The menu calls for pork, naturally, but we’re not making it past the first course (fennel salad does sound good right about now…). There are too many personal and professional problems stewing among these colleagues and coworkers for things to end in anything but a shouting match.
Directed by Timothy Douglas, Disgraced finds mud on all four seemingly civilized and educated white-collars, and in arguments about religion, societal ego and American assimilation, dirty hands are to be commended.
Leading the group is Nehal Joshi’s Amir, unraveling both as a high-powered attorney and self-loathing Muslim nonbeliever. Amir gets some dicey press courtesy of his wife, Emily (Ivy Vahanian), who incorporates Islamic motifs in her painting, and things spiral cruelly from there.
Joshi and Vahanian have interesting chemistry as husband and wife — and as debate opponents — but the deck feels stacked against them.
Amir, in particular, will lose you. He may lose you when he says he felt “a blush” of pride at the jihadist victory of Sept. 11, or he may lose you later, when he drops a couple N-bombs to make an ill-advised point. Akhtar dares you to say that Amir’s faults spring from failing to properly reconcile his religious ancestry — or worse, from giving it free rein — but of course that isn’t the problem.
Along for the ride and then some are Jory (Felicia Curry), a fellow attorney at Amir’s firm, and Isaac (Joe Isenberg), her husband who is featuring some of Emily’s work in his next art show. This quartet comes a tad overloaded with secrets and controversial opinions, but the banter and jousting is one of the best parts of the show. Perhaps that’s because all four self-righteous yuppies are more smart than they are likeable, or perhaps it’s because the dialogue is the only thing that can steal attention away from that amazing set.
Cisek’s scenery is one of those theatrical homes so dead-on, you feel like you could walk up on it and just curl up with a magazine. It’s the best set I’ve seen in a D.C. play so far this year, and Michael Gilliam’s lights and Toni-Leslie James’ costumes also fail to disappoint.
The characters that dance around all that lights and magic are more interesting as mouthpieces than as people, but that doesn’t mean the audience won’t learn anything. Like the dinner guests at Amir and Emily’s, you may not walk away exactly “well fed,” but you won’t leave hungry, either.