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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Disgraced — Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre

disgraced interior - 2Ayad Akhtar pierces through the polite, and often meant, niceties by which we hide our true sentiments in this well-behaved politically correct world. “Disgraced’s” Amir Kapoor, née Amir Abdullah, was born in America, traded his Muslim-identifying Pakistani surname for an Indian moniker, worked to develop no accent, went to the right schools, became an able and relied-upon attorney, and left his religion in favor of apostasy, an act punishable in Islam by death.

Amir also married a white artist, Emily, who ironically takes a deep interest in Muslim art and knows the Koran and Islamic tradition better than ethnicity-eschewing Amir does. They dine with another couple, a man who is Jewish and an art producer, a woman who is black and works with Amir at a prestigious Manhattan firm.

All goes swimmingly for Amir. He has created a genuine identity away from the name, country, and Muslim traditions he was born to and cultivated his desired self with admirable aplomb.Amir may have to undergo accusations of self-hatred for this conscientious transformation, from his family at least, but all signs point to Amir being happy and contented to leave his parents’ world behind for a diverse, eclectic, wealthy one he likes better and prefers not only from his belief that it’s superior but because he worked to craft it.

In “Disgraced,” Amir truly is an individual. Talk of self-hatred comes from others, and he gives them no evidence that their politically correct assessment has any credence.He is never the one to bring up his past or his culture. He has never lived anywhere but the United States, and his perspective is America because he admires what he considers enlightened Western secularism over benighted Western religion. From the 7th century yet! Amir has made a bold choice, and he sticks to it. He has not assimilated to spite anyone as much to please himself and live as he sees fit. A penchant he has to dress well to succeed grandly is as much, if more, a matter of American competitiveness as it is of wanting to excel to shed any stigma of being from South Asia or Islamic.

Emily or her and Amir’s friends, Isaac and Jory, are the ones who constantly remind Amir that he is Islamic, seek his point of view as a Muslim, or harry him because he doesn’t take the same interest in Islamic subjects as he takes in general subjects, a leitmotif among people who wants to be distances from their native culture.. Amir is primarily drawn back into his family, and to doing something of benefit for a Muslim, by his nephew, Abe, another who changed his name, a sixteen-year-old who has Americanized by stays close enough to the Islamic fold to seek Amir’s help in winning freedom for an Imam who is accused of redirecting charitable funds he’s collected for alleged humanitarian purposes to Hamas. Abe will become militant after he’s hassled by the FBI at a Manhattan Starbuck’s and is threatened to deportation to Pakistan, which he left with his mother, Amir’s sister, at age eight..

Like many who have assimilated, I among them, Amir knows the traditions of his people and can willingly participate in a meal or ritual or two. His apostasy, as much a lack of interest as it is a rejection, keeps him from getting too involved. He also remembers the parochial teachings of his parents. White women, including Emily, are to Amir’s mother, whores. He should have met a Muslim women and produced Muslim children. All women, he learned from birth, are secondary to men, and a man has the right, granted by the Koran to beat, or even kill, a woman, particularly a wife, who is disobedient or who insults his manhood, or the vanity he regards as his manhood.

Amir laughs at these ideas as much as he laughs at other trappings of the religion into which he was born and, frankly, the obsolete rules and traditions of all faiths and cultures. Amir has cut through the crap in own life and he’s not to be polite about similar baggage others carry. The Koran, to him, describes a code that may have had validity 1,400 years ago but cannot wisely govern life today. (Just I say the Book of Exodus is a great management plan for moving a mass of people across a great expanse of land in a protracted period of time, but loses modern luster considering by the 20th century, Moses could have, and would have, used a bus.)

In “Disgraced,” Amir’s roots will eventually show, just as everyone’s but Emily’s will rear the uglier head of being part of a culture, even if you have placed ethnicity in perspective, separated yourself from orthodoxy, and put shibboleths, prejudices, and other insanities behind you. Akhtar’s point is when situations become raw or when matters come to the fore, such as Amir feeling a slight if inconsequential twinge of pride about Muslim success on September 11, 2001, people will show some allegiance, however shallow, to a culture they’ve discarded.

In “Disgraced,” Akhtar confronts Amir with this culture and his dismissal, or disregard, of it. The playwright actually confronts all of the characters, even in some ways the least touched, Emily, with their roots. You’ll hear Isaac support Israel for its own sake and even give a respectful nod to Benyamin Nethanyahu even though he is politically correct enough to denigrate some of Netanyahu’s more aggressive or incendiary policies. Jory is aware of what affirmative action has done for her but can get “street” real fast when she sees Isaac kissing Emily and suspects the affectionate move to be more than the consoling peck they say it was. No one is perfect in Akhtar’s play, which shows the playwright knows human nature and the world. I, like Hamlet in relation to lying, am “indifferent” unprejudiced and unbound to any tradition, yet I can accuse me of ethnic allegiance and cultural stereotyping on a more regular basis than I care to countenance.

Same with Amir. Same with Isaac. Same with Abe. Same to a lesser extent with Emily and Jory. To borrow another Shakespearean phrase, no one in “Disgraced” would ‘scape whipping.

Akhtar built a complex play in which Amir loses the most and has most to confront the way his past affects his present and informs his future, but he also provides a play in which everyone is in some state of trying to free him- or herself from the expectations that he or she should think, or act, a given way because of his or her heritage. No one wants to be a stereotype or have his or her thoughts taken for granted based on place of birth, religion, pigment, or social standing. Isaac, Jory, and Emily have liberated themselves from the once-upon-a-time world of hyphenation. Amir and Abe, being Muslim in the early 21st century, have a harder time because whatever they’re thinking or doing, some people suspect them of terrorist sympathy.

In really strong productions of “Disgraced,” such as Kimberly Senior’s Broadway mounting in 2014, every character shows his or her weakness or passion. Jory or Isaac don’t erupt, risk as much, or stand to lose as much as Amir, but they do show the touchy person underneath the disciplined exterior that denotes them more accurately, the visceral sentiments being the anomaly.

Mary B. Robinson’s production for Philadelphia is strong, and effective, but it centers more on Amir and how he, in particular, is affected by reverting, almost against his will, to the teachings he learned about men and women when he was a child. It also shows how, concerning himself with Islamic affairs, as a favor to Abe and Emily, enmeshes in situations that ruin him even though the repercussions are unfair and do not pertain truly to the total Amir we see and know.

Akhtar knows his audience. He knows that having Amir say, honestly, that he got a small thrill from September 11 or cheers terrorist victories, creates the same kind of fluttering, provocative fuss that Isaac foments when he’s backing Israel or Jory suggests by blinking at some ghetto behaviors. Except Amir’s mischievous teases get more of a rise because he is Muslim and what he’s saying goes beyond being politically incorrect to being unpopular.. Akhtar makes it clear that Amir is not a a terrorist or even a benign sympathizer. He thanks heaven each day to have the opportunities of an American. But hearing an Islamic person spout some ultimately meaningless bravado, unbacked by any real intention or conviction, is different and more notable that hearing a well-connected American Jew or well-heeled American black woman do the same. Amir’s words are much more unsettling and frightening. Because he is Muslim and his idle comments go so against the tides, his utterances, even the ones he knows are inane and spouts to raise hackles, have inordinate weight. We know the others are kidding or don’t really care. They’ve risen above their ghettos and really won’t even be pushed back into them, especially Isaac.

Amir is immersed in his past and his culture by his current actions, like it or not, and Robinson makes “Disgraced” his story even more than Akhtar, who means Amir to be the play’s central figure does.

She makes Amir the focus from the beginning. Never is there an attempt to make “Disgraced” into an ensemble piece that ends concentrating on Amir. What Amir says and does has extra weight.

You feel the tension of that responsibility. The atmosphere as you watch Robinson’s “Disgraced” is never relaxed. Even when Amir is lounging in his underwear, and Emily is sketching him in preparation for using his face for a variation of a Velasquez classic, there is a frisson of anticipation and danger emanating from the Suzanne Roberts stage.

Abe’s arrival intensifies the senses of anxiety and friction. In other productions, Abe has had an accent to indicate that he did not come to America from Pakistan until he was age eight. He is also more adamant about his own name change, of which Amir makes fun, and of his desire to assimilate even though he still goes to a mosque and loosely follows Islam.(Something Akhbar says in “Disgraced” confuses me. He has Abe say Amir didn’t have to go to the trouble of changing his first name because it was well-known and acceptable to Americans already. I can’t figure out in Akhtar is accentuating Abe’s misconception about the commonness of Amir’s name of if he is under the delusion Amir is a name often given to Americans.)

Abe wants Amir to help defend an Imam accused of sending money he’s collected as charity to Hamas, a charge Abe and Emily, who has visited the man in prison, swears is false.. Amir is resistant, but Emily gets more involved, and Amir agrees to advise the Imam’s legal team to appease her..

This starts a firestorm. The Jewish partners of Amir’s firm, even one whose work Amir has been covering for three years, wonder about his possible ties to politics in the Middle East, especially when the name of their firm appears in a New York Times article that mentions Amir’s participation, albeit in a buried spot on page 14. Amir’s name change comes into question, as does his saying his parents were born in India, literally true because Pakistan had not created when his father was born in 1946 and in its infancy when his mother was born in 1948;..

NealBoxAmir suddenly can’t do anything right. The past he has so thoroughly and carefully obliterated comes back to haunt. So do some bad habits learned at his father’s knee. In an argument with Emily over Isaac, Amir slaps Emily hard and almost kills her. He has already called Jory the n-word because of a business dealing, and he is dismayed to find Abe, kufi on his head, talking about his possible deportation.

All is a mess, but a lot of the mess has to do with Amir being Muslim, in some of his reflex reactions, in some of his remarks, and is the larger world’s eyes. A series of incidents turns him from an American who happens to be Muslim to a person destroyed because no one seems able to see him as anything Muslim, and congenitally so.

Akhtar aims for us all to be disgraced. Robinson leaves Amir in a quandary while Emily, Jory, Isaac, and even Eve are settling any upheavals they’ve experienced. Her production relies more on words and is tamer than Senior’s was. For instance, Abe, in his last scene with Amir, is filled with emotion. He accuses Amir of self-loathing and of turning his back on his people and abandoning those who could use his legal prowess to fight discrimination of the kind to which Abe has been subjected. In Senior’s production, the actor playing Abe, was shaking with anger and barraging Amir with words in a tearful, emotional harangue. At the Roberts, Anthony Mustafa Adair looks Vahdat’s Amir directly in his eye and spoke like an actor delivering a speech in character rather than a betrayed young man pouring out his soul. There was no passion. There was no emphasis. Words were the only tools Adair used. His speech was effective. You knew, whether you agreed with Abe or not, what he wanted to say. But you didn’t see much heart or conviction while listening to him say it.

The reading was cold, and that is the difference between a powerful but distant production of “Disgraced,” like Robinson’s, and a more visceral, committed version of the play like Senior’s,

Both approaches are good. Robinson’s production amply does its job and presents Akhtar’s play in a riveting fashion. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking the other characters, especially Abe, who is a reckless child who only rates sympathy for being a juvenile and has no right to judge Amir, get an easy ride, that their warts, and their excuse for having warts, aren’t shown as plainly.

Robinson’s “Disgraced” isn’t as rich and varied as Senior’s, but it is potent and thought-provoking. You have a lot to consider and ponder as you leave the theater. You are also impressed, and moved, by the play and the production’s power. It is palpable and tangible.

The cast as the Roberts is uniformly fine. I was particularly impressed, as happens often lately,  with the performance of Aimé Donna Kelly, who has emerged over the last two seasons as one of Philadelphia’s most versatile actors. There is nothing false or feigned about Kelly’s Jory. You believe in her authenticity from the start. I like the ease and sense of assurance Kelly gives Jory at the dinner party (where, with a Jew and Muslim at table, the main course is pork roast; Akhtar is witty at driving the assimilation angle home) at which the four trade barbs and speak freely on many subjects, Jory always keeping her cool, but letting you see anything that’s going on inside her.. The men may go at it, and Emily may not care much, but Kelly’s Jory is unflappable and, beyond that, amused at all the badinage, especially when Israel and the Middle East are up for discussion.

Ben Graney is natural as Isaac, who believes he can support what he likes but balks when Amir takes a stand. Graney is excellent in the seduction scene with Emily.

Monette Magrath has the most difficult part. Emily is the most evolved, the most decent of the quartet. She even has the advantage of not having to think of sliding into stereotype because she fits none, except perhaps being the artist who accepts all and looks at everything as something that might inform a creation. Being a white woman, she didn’t have the same influences to thwart while trying to forge her identity. Also, Emily is always the sympathetic victim — of Amir’s physical and emotional assaults and of Isaac’s seduction. Maybe, if it wasn’t for political correctness, Emily could be more forgiving of Amir. But audiences may balk at a woman returning to a man who has hit her. Even if it is a good calculated risk because Amir is sincerely penitent, and he could use support to get over a behavior that may never surface again. We have become an absolute society. Yet it is telling that in Senior’s productions, it looked as Amir was showing his true colors while in Robinson’s, you have an idea he is ripe for redemption and deserving of it. Pej Vahdat reinforces that idea at the Roberts.

Given that Emily is the character with the least demonstrative personality, Magrath does a fine job conveying her decency and normality.

Although I pointed out that Anthony Mustafa Adair stood and delivered while another actor emoted Abe’s big speech, Adair played a young man you want to root for and help. His Abe seemed like a boy in the quandary Amir has landed in as man. No is letting him decide his identity. The FBI labels him. His kufi labels him. His name change speaks volumes. Abe is the one who will have to decide what place there might be for a young Muslim man in America. The trouble is Amir knew one plausible answer to that question until he was still too Muslim for some people’s taste.

Adair is firm is his scenes and conveys how sincere Abe is, confused by life or not, in all he has to say. He is also handsome in a way that underscores Abe’s naivety and makes him more sympathetic.

Pej Vahdat is a remarkable Amir. Even when his character is smug and snarky, he has appeal because he is confident and because he has withstood all kinds of pressure and prejudice to be the man he envisioned, not the obedient Muslim lad his mother wanted, the barely noticeable Muslim his employers wanted, or the Muslim who occasionally acknowledges his roots and culture Emily wants. Vahdat also endows Amir with irony and humor, two traits rarely given to Muslim characters today.

As Amir is drawn into reacting to calamities in his marriage and career, you see him both recoil and proceed with flippant glee before he launches his verbal salvoes. Vahdat clearly defines the moment he realizes Amir has gone too far is physically punishing Emily for her infidelity with Isaac. It’s one the more poignant moments in this “Disgraced.”

I also like the way Vahdat handles Amir considering his fate as he stands in his vacant apartment, once such a symbol of pride, success, and crafting of one’s won existence. It’s a moment of wonder. Not of defeat or self-recrimination or regret or confusion. He has taken an angry step and destroyed Emily’s homage of Velasquez. The next step is uncertain but needs, once it’s figured out, to be taken, and that’s what Vahdat shows.

Jason Simms created a beautiful apartment for Amir and Emily. Everything speaks of ease and taste, and the little outdoor terrace Emily uses to get some air is very well placed and designed. The carved woodwork says Emily and Amir admired the old and traditional and blended it with the modern. Mark Marini’s costumes let you see Amir’s expensive taste in haberdashery. Marini did a good job dressing all.

“Disgraced,” produced  by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, November 8, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 7 p.m., Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $62 to $24 and can be obtained  by calling 215-985-0420 or by visiting http://www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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