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
What are the odds for sitting on an international flight by Turkish Airlines with fantastic food of mixed east-west aroma flanked by one Iraqi gentleman and one Iranian lady (who amusingly knew each other’s nationality but never talked)? Well, not big at all, but that did happen to me, so I deem myself very lucky. A pretty delightful closure for my first ever trip to the exquisitely rich Istanbul full of historic charm and grandeur. Istanbul had been high on my list of must-go places in the world. Since it’s hard for me to take time off work in the spring, which is supposedly the best season to visit Turkey, and its climate is mild enough for winter trips, I decided to travel there during the week prior to Christmas. That is, before the European vacationers descend in drones during the Christmas holiday, which usually drives up the prices for hotels, etc. as well.
Fountains Between Mosques
After landing at dusk and clumsily navigating the local ATMs and the metro ticketing machine (with scant English instructions), without mentioning several transfers on the public transit system and yes, incredibly warm and hospitable locals (mostly with gestures though), I stepped off the tram in the well-known Sultanahmet; and…I was seriously surprised by the first thing I saw in front of me – Burger King. More than a bit disappointed, I walked towards the direction of the hotel (given by the all helpful locals at the station). Immediately, I felt engulfed by several indescribably marvelous wonders: the call to prayers, a semi-musical otherworldly chanting emanating from afar; the majestic silhouette of two mosques with their well-lit, resplendent minarets set against the thickening darkness; and, the dazzlingly colorful dancing fountains in the middle of a giant square in between the two mosques. Totally in awe, I stopped walking, trying to take in the grand and exotic atmosphere.
Vowing to return in the daylight, I continued on, zigzagging along several winding streets, before finally finding the petite yet quaint and enchanting family-run Sphendon Hotel. Once again, my stubborn preference for boutique hotels with unique character over big chain hotels, didn’t fail me. The deco, the rooftop deck, the garden view from the breakfast room, the cute gadgets in the tiny bathroom, and even the lamp and small area rug in the bedroom charmed me. An attentive staff, always ready to help and make small talk, served a variety of carefully prepared foods at breakfast.
Interior of Hagia Sophia
Over the next several days, I was nearly overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of what there was to see and do in Istanbul: the impressive, almost ritual dinners of distinctive Turkish style (loved the hanging figs, unique Turkish ambient, and rose tea in the exquisite tea cup) in Old Town’s traditional restaurants; the tasting of Turkish coffee at Sark Kahvesi, that traditional coffeehouse and Istanbul institution filled with signs of heritage, especially from the Ottoman era, inside the Grand Bazaar; the treat of a thoughtful guided tour of Hagia Sophia and subsequently a cup of warm, delicious and much-needed Salep by a knowledgeable and generous local college student; the legendary and utterly splendid Pera Palace Hotel best known for its association with the Orient Express in the 1920s and an iconic reminder of Istanbul’s historically being at the cross-roads between Orient and Occident; the unbelievable chance encounter with a Mandarin-speaking Uyghur who used to live in Xinjiang, China on the street to the Spice Market; interesting conversations at a traditional Turkish bath with three friendly women who now live in Istanbul after migrating from Tajikistan; the day-long Bosphorus cruise that traces Istanbul’s massive grandeur and glorious past; the unforgettably soulful whirling dervish experience; and the ultimate treat of observing up close the sacred ceremony of Islamic prayers of pious Muslims at the Blue Mosque after being granted an exceptional invitation of access (due to my all curious yet sincere questions) while the conventional rule would have completely blocked me from this experience. The list can go on a lot longer.
And of course there are the local people, with their incredible warmth, kindness, and being so sincere, gracious, and down to earth (with little materialistic tinge except perhaps those somewhat annoying market vendors), not arrogant nor diffident. Memories from my trip about this genuinely loving, kind and considerate people abound and will long stay with me. Absolution is perhaps interpreted in various ways by different people in today’s world; yet it’s deeply moving to me, which helps explain the more spiritual side of this lovely people. Rick Stevens certainly wasn’t biased when he noted Turkish people are probably his favorite people on earth.
The juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, East and West, and the co-existence of different historic periods and diverse religions and ethnicities (most vividly manifest in the city’s architecture, including along Istiklal Street in the New District) deeply fascinated me. As the intersections of Asia and Europe, where multiple trends, ideals, cultures as well as goods have always converged in history, probably more than anything else the strategic location of this magnificent and open-minded city have made its people who they are. No wonder Napoleon once said, “If our whole world would be one country, then Istanbul would be its capital!”
Just as I had expected, I didn’t exhaust all the must-see and must-do on my list during this first trip. Yet, I’ve got plenty of lasting memories to savor and treasure. As I was looking out to the sea from the hotel terrace at the crack of dawn on my last day in the city, and as I said thank you to a wheel-chair bound yet extremely thoughtful old Turkish gentleman who, on my way to the airport, tried his best to remind me it’s time to transfer to another subway even though he doesn’t speak English, I felt sad to say goodbye and I knew I will be traveling back to this stunning world city someday, if only to experience the unparalleled warm hospitality, generosity and infectious spirituality of its people.
Photos by Ting Wang