An opening tableau with figures barely visible, one moving in slo-mo.
An ominous soundtrack and eerie lighting in the transitions between the play’s four scenes.
Occasional full stops within the scenes themselves.
These choices by director Sharifa Yasmin lend a sense of impending doom, horror movie-style, to Ayad Akhtar’s 2012 drama Disgraced, now playing at American Stage.
But, while the Pulitzer Prize-winning script does call for long pauses from time to time, the truly horrifying moments pop up in mid-conversation, when seemingly offhand remarks rip away the facade of polite friendliness.
Disgraced includes a minefield of micro-aggressions, fueled to explode during a dinner party on Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side. Amir Kapoor (Ahsan Ali), a hard-driving corporate lawyer, and his wife, Emily (Madeleine Russell), a painter, host the party. Their guests include Isaac (Liam MacDougall), an influential curator, and his wife, Jory (Natasha Hakata), a colleague of Amir’s at his law firm. They may have previously ignored (or suppressed) any racial or religious differences, but on this occasion those distinctions — Isaac is Jewish; Jory, Black; Amir, a non-practicing Muslim taking pains to conceal his Pakistani roots; and Emily, a white artist whose work channels Islamic traditions — all come to the fore.
That Amir and Emily have never really confronted his ambivalence about Islam is clear from the opening scene, when his young nephew, Abe (Shivam Patel), pleads with him to help with the court case of an Imam accused of using his mosque to raise money for Hamas.
Emily takes Abe’s side, urging Amir to help with the case. But Amir counters her admiration for the “beauty and wisdom in the Islamic tradition” with accounts of his family’s virulent hatred for non-Muslims, especially Jews — a tradition he rejects, and one he hopes no one associates with him. Still, perhaps because of Emily’s challenge, he does make a court appearance with the Imam — and when the New York Times writes a story about the case, his fears people will see him as one of “them” get realized.
“I wouldn’t even have known you were a Muslim if I hadn’t read it in the Times,” says Isaac to Amir during the party. But as dinner progresses, Amir’s condemnation of Islam devolves into a startling monologue in which he admits to feeling a flash of “tribal” pride on September 11.
“You have no idea how I was brought up. You have to work real hard to root that shit out,” he adds. And when he challenges Isaac to deny ever feeling a similar “blush” of pride at “Israel throwing its military weight around,” Isaac rants back and later dismisses Amir as a “fucking closet jihadist.”
The fissures threatening these couples’ relationships are as much personal as political. Everyone has secrets and jealousies, and throughout the play Akhtar adeptly depicts the sharp little jabs that hint at something deeper. He also has an ear for the NYC finance and art worlds in which these characters move, name-checking everything from Jerry Saltz to Goldman Sachs to Magnolia Bakery.
But if the milieu feels unmistakably Manhattan, the play asks a fundamental question: Is cross-cultural understanding even possible when prejudices are so deeply entrenched?
About that first dark tableau: Once the lights come up, it reveals a portrait session: Emily, painting her husband, in a pose reminiscent of Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant, an enslaved Moor. She says the way Amir dealt with a rude waiter the night before reminded her of it.
“You made him see the gap. Between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are,” she says. Amir thinks the whole idea “a little weird,” but Emily sees it as homage to a painting that treated a humble servant with “nuance and complexity.”
Later, Isaac tells Emily in a private moment what he sees in Amir’s expression: “The slave has the master’s wife.”
Talk about a gap.
Months after the party left devastation in its wake, Abe strikes out at his uncle with an angry screed: “For 300 years they’ve been… making us want to be like them. Look like them. Marry their women. They disgraced us.”
He fails to realize until too late that Emily, his friend — and one of “their women,” the white woman his uncle married — heard every word.
The cast is uniformly excellent at navigating the play’s emotional twists and turns and its briskly intelligent, sometimes overlapping dialogue.
As Jory, Hakata plays the model of wry restraint until even her carefully maintained veneer cracks open. MacDougall’s Isaac appears the smoothest of operators until his biases (and desires) surface. Russell conveys all of Emily’s complicated sympathies — her love for Isaac, her curiosity about Islam, her professional ambition, her blindness to how all these things are colliding — in a fluid, affecting performance. Patel’s Abe convincingly shows a young man torn between cultures, and Ali’s Amir is all coiled energy, lean and tense, his success as a kick-ass lawyer as credible as the destructive self-deception that leads to the play’s devastating conclusion.
Afsaneh Aayani’s set offers the picture of spare cosmopolitan elegance — parquet floors, loft-style windows, a MidMod cocktail table. But some details, along with the dramatic pauses, moody lighting (by Jennifer Fok) and sound design (by Curtis Craig), that suggest something else is going on here. The doors are hidden, flush against the walls with no visible doorknobs, and at times they seem to open by themselves. And though the script calls for one wall of the apartment to be covered with “a vibrant two-paneled painting… with patterns reminiscent of an Islamic garden,” Aayani leaves the artwork to our imaginations. The walls are decorated with nothing but variously sized blank frames.
So it falls to us to fill in the blanks — and to imagine what darkness looms if we don’t bridge the barriers that divide us?
That’s one interpretation — and one of many questions this haunting play will likely provoke.
A note about strange interludes:
During last Saturday’s (June 3) matinee, when a crucial moment toward the end of the play got interrupted by the honk of a fire alarm, some of us in the audience thought at first that it part of the action, another dramatic directorial pause.
It wasn’t. A smoke effect had triggered the alarm system, and all of us (including the startled actors) had to leave the building. The fire trucks came, firefighters detected no damage, and after about a half an hour the cast seamlessly resumed where they’d left off. Brava Tutti!