Theater Review: The art of hatred shines at Asolo's Disgraced

Everything a play should be. Everything America shouldn’t.

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click to enlarge Theater Review: The art of hatred shines at Asolo's Disgraced - Gary W. Sweetman
Gary W. Sweetman
Theater Review: The art of hatred shines at Asolo's Disgraced

It’s not often that I see a play as completely satisfying as Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize winner appearing at Sarasota’s Historic Asolo Theatre. This shocker has everything: intellect and emotion, originality, topicality, humor and good old passion. In its depiction of a self-hating Muslim who also happens to be a high-powered corporate lawyer, it introduces us to a type with whom we’re not familiar but who must surely exist; and in its other characters it brings us credible humans attempting to take thoughtful stands on politics and ethnicity in a time that’s anything but neutral. Lest I make the drama sound too journalistic, let me add that there are time-honored themes here of love and infidelity, ambition and rivalry. The Asolo actors are first-rate, the direction and design are impeccable — if you need extra urging to take the jaunt over the Skyway, let this review be that encouragement. Disgraced is precisely what the serious theater should be: inventive, provocative, and, to use the appropriate phrase, mind-blowing.

$17-$42. Through April 24. Historic Asolo Theatre, 5401 Bayshore Rd., Sarasota. 941-351-8000. asolorep.org.

Its main character is Amir (the perfectly-cast Dorien Makhloghi), a Type-A personality who allows his superiors at the mostly Jewish law firm to believe he’s Indian, not Pakistani, and who stridently asserts that Islam is a backward religion more fit for the ancient desert than for any modern society. Challenging him on this sweeping dismissal is his Anglo-American wife Emily (the wonderful Lee Stark), a visual artist whose abstract paintings are deliberately based on Muslim models, and who regrets that the Renaissance led art away from the metaphysical concerns that the Islamic art world never abandoned. When the play begins, Amir’s nephew Hussein (the fine Nik Sadhnani) and Emily are trying to persuade Amir to provide some support to a New York imam who may have been falsely accused of raising money for terrorists. Amir doesn’t want anything to do with a case that might make him look like a sympathizer, but he reluctantly gives in — and things get nasty soon after. Meanwhile, Emily is trying to induce prominent Jewish curator Isaac (the persuasive Jordan Sobel) to arrange a life-changing showing of her paintings, but Isaac’s intentions aren’t entirely vocational. There’s one more character: Isaac’s African-American wife Jory (the hyper-assertive Bianca LaVerne Jones), who also happens to be a fellow associate ­— and potential competitor ­— at Amir’s law firm. Over the course of a few scenes, these characters bring us an America forever changed by September 11, a world in which even the most assimilated Muslims are conscious that they’re looked at with suspicion and even hatred. And author Akhtar wants us to know that the Muslim attitude toward the U.S. is quite as complicated; that a painful ambivalence about American values can be animated in the wrong way by constant pressure applied too flagrantly.

Akhtar’s dramaturgy is densely meaningful — there’s hardly a word spoken during the play’s 90 minutes that doesn’t contribute in some way to the onstage clash of civilizations. So we learn, for example, that Hussein has changed his name to Abe in order to live more comfortably in New York City, and that Emily has found herself strangely compelled to paint Amir’s portrait so that it reflects Velazquez’s 17th-century painting of his Moorish slave Juan de Pareja. Isaac turns out to be a fund-raiser for Israeli politicians, and Amir and Emily argue about the correct definition of a possibly violent injunction in the Koran. All of this takes place on Reid Thompson’s attractively modern living room set, in which one of Emily’s Muslim-inflected pop abstracts is prominently displayed ­— and it’s really quite beautiful. Michael Donald Edwards, the Asolo Rep’s head and a gifted director, stages the play with great respect for its thrilling momentum, introducing new scenes with cityscapes and kaleidoscopic projections against the back wall. The apt costuming is by Beth Goldenberg, and the ominous sound design by Ryan Rumery.
I first read Disgraced more than a year ago (it won the Pulitzer back in 2013), and I thought at the time that it was a special work, stunning for its honesty and courage. But the Asolo production exceeds even the expectations I held because of that encounter. I see more clearly now that the drama impresses because it refuses to offer easy solutions to tough problems, because it says things about Americans, Muslims, and American Muslims that don’t turn up on carefully balanced news programs. It must have been a difficult choice for the Pulitzer committee; but it was clearly the right one. Prepare for some lively discussions after the curtain call. 

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