Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play DISGRACED opens Philadelphia Theatre Company’s season. It’s a conversational play with a high-paced ending and plenty of thought-provoking ideas.
Amir (Pej Vahdat) has a nice life. He’s doing so well at his job as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer that he expects to be made partner soon, he has a beautiful apartment and a loving wife Emily (Monette Magrath), who is an artist deeply inspired by Islamic art. Amir was born in Pakistan and raised muslim but he has renounced Islam and prefers to let people assume he’s from India. His nephew Abe (Anthony Mustafa Adair) comes to him for help with the case of an imprisoned imam who Abe is convinced was imprisoned for made up crimes. After much cajoling and, frankly, emotional extortion from Emily, Amir agrees to try and help the imam. After that decision there is no going back as far as his reputation, or life, goes.
As the play progresses, Amir’s inability to make peace with his roots leads to more and more intense conflicts that reach a climax when his coworker Jory (Aimé Donna Kelly) and her Jewish husband Isaac (Ben Graney) show up for a dinner party. Within a generally predictable plot, the dinner party is the most contrived aspect of this play, like a college brochure featuring one representative from every religion and ethnicity. The conversation that follows is provocative and interesting even if it doesn’t provide anything new for anyone with a basic knowledge of politics, religion, and history. Generally, the dinner party amounts to an analogy of world politics, and as such, the way it gets out of control is eerie in its accuracy.
While the ending is melodramatic, it’s where all the good stuff is. The lectures on the history of Islamic art are over and the characters reveal themselves, moving from the intellectual to the emotional and instinctive. Pej Vahdat does an admirable job as the self-loathing, conflicted Amir opposite a Monette Magrath’s Emily that is a little too reminiscent of the Stepford wives. Ben Graney as Isaac and Aimé Donna Kelly as Jory have a knack for comedic timing that lightens up the mood when needed. Generally there’s a kind of stiffness to this production and much of the acting that makes sense when you consider it’s ultimately a series of upper class dinner conversations. But on the other hand, the audience is supposed to believe these conversations spring from deeply felt convictions, and until the end that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
In terms of drama DISGRACED is flawed, but it’s an interesting play with a few phenomenal moments that should provoke many dinner conversations. [Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street] October 9-November 8, 2015; philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.