(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a play of ideas.
Its five characters discuss issues of contemporary politics, religion, racial identity, and international relations just as much as they discuss their own lives, secrets, and desires, if not more so. A successful production thus requires a highly talented cast that is able to make conversations about issues as tense and suspenseful as the family dramas of Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.
Austin Playhouse’s new production of Disgraced, running through Jan. 31, does just that, providing a gripping exchange of both ideas and emotions that leaves the audience questioning some of our closest-held beliefs about contemporary geopolitics and personal identity.
Disgraced is the story of Amir, a high-powered New York attorney who goes to great lengths to deny his Islamic heritage, and of what happens to him when that heritage begins to come to light.
J. Ben Wolfe, as Amir, is the steady center of the production, with a powerful character arc that serves as the play’s main plot. At first blush, Wolfe’s acting style seems a bit stilted for what is a realist presentation, but by the mid-point of the play it becomes clear that Amir’s early pomposity and elusiveness was actually a careful choice designed to show just how much the man underneath has been hidden behind artifice.
As Amir’s wife, Emily, Molly Karachi provides the warm counterpoint to Amir’s external coldness, though her own politics – a white artist utilizing Islamic forms – frequently express an Orientalist privilege that she seeks to deny. Similarly contested identities are found in Amir and Emily’s married friends, Isaac (a Jewish art gallery owner who takes on Emily’s work, as well as her confidence) and Jory (an African American woman working, in seemingly friendly competition, at the same firm as Amir), leading to the highlight of the show, an increasingly tense and angry political exchange over dinner that comes to an explosive climax of both character and ideology.
Rounding out the cast is Harold Fisch, as Amir’s nephew Abe, a young Muslim increasingly radicalized by the prejudice he faces against the peaceful practice of his faith and politics.
Don Toner, both the director of this production and Austin Playhouse’s producing artistic director, has assembled a top-notch team here, on stage and behind the scenes.
Amir and Emily’s modernist Upper East Side apartment is brought to vivid life by Mike Toner’s sets, along with naturalistic lighting by Don Day and sound design by Joel Mercado-See, as well as pitch-perfect, character-revealing costumes by Glenda Wolfe.
With its deft expression of complex, contested, and confrontational ideas and ideologies, it is easy to see why Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize. Austin Playhouse’s production more than does that text justice, and will engage the mind every bit as much as it does the emotions.
"Disgraced continues through Jan. 31. www.austinplayhouse.com