Sunday, October 04, 2015

Apostate of Being: 'Disgraced' Gracefully Probes Questions of Self, Place, Race at Goodman -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Ayad Akhtar
directed by Kimberly Senior
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 25

As much as I might try to, I obviously can't see everything worthwhile presented onstage in Chicago, especially as my interests--in terms of live event options--include not only dramatic and musical theater, but also rock, blues, jazz and classical concerts, opera, improv/comedy, dance and also sporting events.

So although Ayad Akhtar's play, Disgraced, received strong reviews from the Tribune's Chris Jones and others when it debuted in early 2012 at Chicago's American Theater Company--a troupe & venue I've enjoyed multiple times before and since--for whatever confluence of factors I didn't get to it.

This oversight came to seem more glaring when the drama enjoyed successful stagings in New York first off-Broadway and then on, directed as at ATC by Kimberly Senior, whose work I've regularly admired. Akhtar, who is also an actor and novelist (American Dervish), earned the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced, which was also Tony-nominated for a Best Play in 2015.

So I was delighted when Chicago's Goodman Theatre, at which I have been a subscriber since 2004, announced that it would mount its own production of Disgraced--again helmed by Senior--to kick off its 2015-16 mainstage season. The current Goodman cast will subsequently take the play to Berkeley and Seattle, and in his stellar review of this rendition, Chris Jones notes that the show "is the most produced play in America's professional theaters this season," with an HBO adaptation already underway.

Though it was well-conveyed in a post-show discussion on Thursday that all five of the drama's characters could somehow be seen as "disgraced," at the core of the play is Amir Kapoor (terrifically enacted by Bernard White), a successful Manhattan lawyer born and raised Muslim in Pakistan, but now an apostate who has renounced his Islamic faith.

(The "talk back," in which all the actors participated--and supposedly usually do--was a great complement given the play's complex themes, and nearly as interesting and valuable as the show itself. I believe there is a discussion after every performance.)

Living in a plush apartment on the Upper East Side--richly appointed by set designer John Lee Beatty--Amir is apparently enjoying a life of considerable success and affluence, even before becoming a partner in his firm, as his possible promotion informs part of the play's narrative.

Amir is married to Emily (Nisi Sturgis), a white artist who, as the play opens, is creating a portrait of her husband inspired by Velázquez' Portrait of Juan de Pareja, but whose more geometrical Islamic-influenced works capture the fancy of a Jewish art curator named Isaac (J. Anthony Crane).

Early in Disgraced, Amir conveys to Emily a childhood story of intolerance on the part of his mother, and makes clear that he has distanced himself from his religion not only for the sake of upward mobility within a law firm with Jewish name partners--one of whom has long served as a mentor and father figure--but due to his aversion to certain teachings of the Quran.

Even as his nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu, who was in the original ATC cast) comes to seek legal assistance for a local Imam, and Emily urges him to lend his support, Amir maintains his resolve to stay secular, due not only to his differing religious beliefs (or lack thereof) but out of concern for professional appearances.

It would do a disservice to divulge much of what transpires in a play that holds a good bit of intrigue, so in terms of storyline I'll only explain that in addition to Amir's relationship with Emily, their interactions with Abe and the ramifications that develop, a good chunk of the 80-minute piece involves a dinner Amir & Emily host for Isaac and his African-American wife, Jory (Zakiya Young), which becomes rather heated.

With a shrewd post-show comment from Dabu reminding that each of the characters should be viewed as the individuals we all are, rather than universally representing Islam, Judaism, non-believers, minorities, lawyers, artists, blondes, interfaith couples or anyone else, Disgraced is a very well-written work about many topical matters. And watching it through the prism of our own perspectives can undoubtedly shape rather varied interpretations.

Answers to questions about faith, religion, assimilation, being an "American," suppressing personal identity & pride for monetary gain, Islam in post-9/11 New York, deep-seated prejudices, marital challenges, workplace injustices and more aren't readily forthcoming, and not only is the ambiguity entirely realistic but dramatically powerful in its thematic complexity.

Still, I can't deem Disgraced a masterpiece at this point, in part because I couldn't comfortably discern--even just from my own point of view--what Akhtar is trying to say.

There is also a turn that comes late in Act II that feels a bit askew to the characterizations up to that point.

Still, even if there are a number of plays I've liked better, or other viewers of Disgraced who enjoyed it even more than I did--which several post-show comments would suggest--it is certainly a formidable play, presented extremely well by Senior, her collaborators and a superlative cast at Goodman.

Especially if you're sorry you missed it previously, there's no reason to this time.

And be sure to stick around afterward for a conversation that could potentially be even more compelling. 

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