Avoiding talk about religion and politics is prudent, particularly during a dinner party like the one we see in Disgraced that brings together four friends from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The setting is an upscale apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a balcony providing a spectacular view of the Chrysler building. Amir Kapoor (Nehal Joshi) is a corporate lawyer at a major firm who specializes in the lucrative work of mergers and acquisitions. His wife, Emily (Ivy Vahanian), is an artist whose career is about to take off. The dinner guests include Isaac (Joe Isenberg), a Jewish curator who is helping Emily with a new show, and his African-American wife, Jory (Felicia Curry), a fellow associate at Amir’s firm. The evening begins on a civil note, but before the main course is served, tempers flare, accusations fly, and violence erupts.
Ayad Akhtar has written a play for our times, one that delves into topics that most of us think about but rarely dare to voice our opinions upon. After seeing this play, chances are conversations will follow. And in our current political climate, that’s not a bad thing. Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is the most-produced play of the 2015/16 theater season. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, has obviously touched a nerve about what it means to be an American and if assimilation, particularly for Muslims, is ever really possible.
Samir Raval and Nehal Joshi
Amir and Emily are an odd couple, and not just because of the differences in their backgrounds. He was born in Pakistan and raised as a Muslim. But with his feet firmly planted in America, he’s left his religion behind, deriding Islam as an ancient religion out of place in the modern world. Emily is obviously American and not Muslim. However, she tends to romanticize Islam and even uses Islamic images in her artwork. (The set design includes one of Emily’s paintings over the fireplace.) Amir’s nephew, Abe Jensen (Samip Raval), is similarly conflicted about his origins, having changed his name after being born Hussein Malik. Yet Abe is determined to help an iman who has been arrested and asks Amir to help. Amir initially refuses, but when pressured by Emily, agrees. Although Amir doesn’t actually represent the iman, his name winds up in the newspapers, exposure that will damage his position at his firm.
The evening of the dinner party, Isaac arrives a half hour early, followed shortly by Jory. While Emily rushes to get dressed, Amir, after rudely admonishing Isaac for arriving ahead of schedule, grudgingly pours drinks and attempts to entertain his guests. The mixup in timing is the first indication that things are about to go awry.
Conversation over the fennel and anchovy salad begins innocently enough, but when talk turns to Amir’s involvement with the iman’s case, the discussion grows more heated. Akhtar’s dialogue is, at times, searing. The playwright has talked about how his own struggle with his identity, ethnically and religiously, inspired the play. While Amir has made accommodations to be accepted and succeed in mainstream America, when challenged, he finds himself defending Islam even excusing acts of violence, a moment which produced gasps from the audience.
Joe Isenberg,Felicia Curry, Ivy Vahanian, and Nehal Joshi
The other explosions have less to do with identity and more to do with the typical conflicts that erupt when hard-driving professionals compete for success in the board room and the bedroom. Amir receives bad news on both fronts. How much his cultural struggles contribute to the outcome becomes less important than how he will move ahead.
Arena Stage’s production benefits from strong direction by Timothy Douglas who also directed Arena’s King Hedley II. Confrontations between the actors, both verbal and physical, are staged for maximum effect. Pacing is impressive. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the action never flags and when the lights go down, the audience is left breathless.
The four actors are up to the challenges. As Amir, Joshi displays an impressive range, from a hard-hitting attorney at the top of his game, to someone who sees his dreams crash and burn. Emotions are conveyed, not only with facial expressions, but with body language. In the beginning he seems puffed up by his own importance; by the end, he seems deflated.
Vahanian goes toe-to-toe with Joshi, never backing down even when faced with her own wrong-doing. We watch her transformation from loving, idealistic wife, to a woman who can stand on her own and no longer needs to define herself as part of a multi-ethnic couple.
I found Curry’s performance most powerful. Her time on stage was less than the other actors, but she left such a strong impression that her absence was immediately felt. Isenberg’s character came off as the least likable, someone who was ready to cross even those closest to him in order to achieve his goals. As Abe/Hussein, Raval’s performance was telling, reflecting the conflict felt by so many young Muslim men who struggle to fit into a society that often targets them.
Set Designer Tony Cisek has created the quintessential Manhattan apartment for urban professionals. Even before Amir and Emily begin their first conversation, we understand their aspirations and life-style. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are perfect, while lighting by Michael Gilliam and original compositions by sound designer Fitz Patton take us from scene to scene and heighten the emotional impact.
Disgraced is a provocative evening of theater. Don’t miss it.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Opening: Left to right, Joe Isenberg, Nehal Joshi, Ivy Vahanian and Felicia Curry
1101 Sixth Street SW
When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.
Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin
The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).
Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.
Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.
Margaret Colin and Tyler Smallwood
We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.
Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson
Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.
Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.
While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner
The City of Conversation
1011 Sixth Street, SW