PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize drama, “Disgraced,” is a hit – right in the gut. Its unflinching exposure of racial and religious prejudices glaringly reflects many uncomfortable realities in our lives.
But it’s also a hit in the traditional sense. At Saturday’s official opening, the audience held its collective breath for an unbroken 90 minutes, then unleashed a heartfelt surge of genuine acclamation.
Ayad Akhtar’s play takes place in the upscale New York apartment of high-powered Pakistani-American lawyer Amir and his artist wife Emily. He’s living the American Dream, having hidden his Muslim heritage to assimilate and move up the ladder.
But his life begins to unravel after a newspaper wrongly reports he’s representing a jailed Muslim imam (Amir has only given him advice at Emily’s request), which troubles Amir’s law firm. Then, at a celebratory dinner for Emily’s inclusion in a major art exhibit, things fall apart completely. Isaac, the Jewish museum curator who selected Emily’s works, and his African-American wife, Jory, a colleague at Amir’s firm, find themselves increasingly at odds with Amir’s strong opinions about faith and fanaticism. With copious alcohol lowering everyone’s guard, shocking accusations are hurled and ugly truths are inadvertently revealed, changing all four lives forever.
Akhtar cleverly pulls the audience into a seemingly happy set of lives, filling the first half with believable humor of married life and career pursuits. That makes the unexpected outbursts of hatred, narrow-mindedness and xenophobia all the more appalling.
The play is one of ideas and messages that in lesser hands would seem merely didactic. Here, director Shishir Kurup established fully rounded characters reacting realistically. He paces the actors tightly while allowing them significant pauses to indicate emotional struggles.
Rajesh Bose shows Amir’s many sides, from cocky and belligerent to desperate and remorseful, making us like and dislike him equally. Nicole Gabriella Scipione embodies Emily’s naïveté in thinking that Islamic patterns in her art make her understand the culture. Benjamin Curns lets us see Isaac’s apparently firm convictions undercut by his damaging secrets. Rasool Jahan gives one of her finest performances as Jory, her witty assurance masking a journey similar to Amir’s. Samip Raval rounds out the cast as Amir’s teenage nephew who rejects his uncle’s choices.
Nephelie Andonyadis’ tastefully sleek set and furnishings are complemented by Geoff Korf’s lighting, especially during scene changes, which are acted out to give a seamless flow to the ever-intensifying narrative.
To say this is one of the company’s most satisfying productions in several seasons doesn’t discount its disturbing but thought-provoking effects, one of theater’s highest functions. With today’s worrying political and religious clashes, “Disgraced” proves a much-needed eye-opener to all our unspoken intolerances.
What: “Disgraced” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22-25, 27, 29-30 and Oct.1-3; 2 p.m. Sept. 27 and Oct. 3-4