Rep’s ‘Disgraced’ Is Powerful, Provocative
Play by Pulitzer-winner Ayad Akhtar, Brookfield Central grad, is wowing audiences.
Fast-moving and provocative, Disgraced turns a sophisticated dinner party among social elites into a slow dissolve of their pretenses about having risen above ethnic worries and stereotypes. Running through February 12 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, it is the best directed and acted Milwaukee Rep play experienced of late, fulfilling its 2013 Pulitzer-winning reputation as the sort of conversational theater that grows in conflict, meaning and impact over its 90 minutes.
The production is a cooperation among three regional theater companies, but this time not as much about sharing the expense as about elevating the artistic value. All the actors are Rep imports and both the Guthrie Theater and the McCarter Theater staged this play months ago with much the same company. (Disgraced in fact has become the most produced play in the United States.)
The Rep is following up with a “Second Act” half hour of post-play conversation, which many patrons are skipping and others will be itching to attend to talk about what they have seen and absorbed.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar, who can claim a Milwaukee heritage along with a Pakistani one (he went to high school in Brookfield), has entered a multi-year arrangement with the Rep to produce his plays, which spells provocative things in the company’s future. Last season was already notable for The Invisible Hand. Akhtar has a knack for burying character depth and complexity within themes that are as much about wealth and corporate maneuvers as they are about ethnic displacement. He has smoothed large issues into intimate theater structure.
Here, a successful corporate Muslim lawyer, his white artist wife, a black lawyer and a Jewish art dealer begin on the friendliest of high society terms and elegant food and conversation, only to be splintered apart by their roots and some hidden connections that pop to the surface. The splinters come partly because of currents of America’s ethnic fear of Muslims that have been planted along the way and partly because of the difficulties to pretend assimilation while carrying long festering grudges.
The director, Marcela Lorca, also a Guthrie veteran, has rethought the comfort world of Disgraced as an open-ended Manhattan showplace cleverly designed by James Youmans to reek of overly ostentatious wealth and Islamic geometric patterns, with fine, high-fashion street dress by Ana Kuzmanic. Lorca emphasizes physical movement as the actors circle each other and maneuver perfectly timed props.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is astonishingly active and disturbing as Amir, the lawyer who disguises a self-loathing with robust conversation, unintentionally displaying his cynical rejection of his Muslim roots while being unexpectedly influenced by them. The actor in both stillness and manic activity reveals the troubling tics and wrenching fury of his behavior.
Janie Brookshire is his artist wife – probably the most physically active performance in the play but also the most vulnerable, forcing her out of her artistic loft and sexual longings into the realities circling around her.
Austene Van, as the black female lawyer forced to drop her mask of objectivity, provides a much needed earthy saltiness. Jason Babinsky as her Jewish husband subtly conveys humor and unflappability before turning into angry provocateur – in a performance that sneaks up on the audience and winds up surprising and dismaying them.
Imran Sheikh rounds out the main cast as Abe, Amir’s nephew who is in the most open turmoil between his Muslim roots and the demeaning demands of American conformity, providing a youthful angst that stands in contrast to the “go along get along” attitudes around him.
The play’s passions play tag with pop culture while steeped in Islamic and Jewish nuances and explosions. Black culture, too.
A casual reference to a famous Velazquez portrait stirs up the juices of racial divide that will come back to haunt the conversation. The dialogue allows discussion of Woody Allen’s fascination with the Denial of Death book to snake back into the wife’s search for meaning in Islamic symmetry. The ideas may sound complex and off-putting to a general audience but they are completely accessible in execution, planting the seeds of controversy that reveal character impulses and outrage.
The play is a hotbed that isolates problems our society will long deal with even though the plot elements are invented. But the imagination of the playwright transcends plot and the issues will remain all too real for the foreseeable future.