Monday, October 26, 2015

Theater Review: Disgraced-- Long Wharf

Rajesh Bose and Nicole Lowrance. Photo: T, Charles Erickson
Prejudices Surface, Identities Get Blurry – and Uncomfortable
By Lauren Yarger
When a Muslim, a Jew, an African-American and a WASP start talking religion, it gets messy and before the evening is over, friends and spouses discover they don’t really know each other or themselves very well.

Welcome to the compelling world of Ayad Akhbar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced, getting a run at Long Wharf Theatre. This production, tautly directed by Long Wharf’s Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, also will play at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Jan 8-Feb. 7, 2016.

Rajesh Bose  reprises a role he has played before (for PlayMakers Repertory in North Carolina): Amir, a former Muslim – whether there even can be such a thing is one of the themes explored here – who has decided to worship his career as a mergers and acquisitions attorney in New York instead of the religion into which he was born. He rejects the archaic Quran and the often violent religion it promotes. Accused of just “going through a phase” by his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam), who has Americanized his name from Hussein, Amir replies that such a phase is called “intelligence.”

If Amir feels a pull toward his Pakistani roots, it is because his WASPy American artist wife, Emily, (Nicole Lowrance, who gives a very strong performance) defends the religion and continually praises the beauty and wisdom she finds in her studies of Islamic art. Her latest works have been influenced by it and have earned her a spot in a new show being produced by Isaac (Benim Foster), who is married to Jory (Shirine Babb), an attorney vying for partnership with Amir at their firm.

It’s Emily who sympathizes with an imam accused of having terrorist ties and joins with Abe in urging Amir to help. Would she be so quick to defend Islam if she knew that even his mother thought all white women were whores, he asks? He eventually capitulates to their pleas, but appearing to support the suspected terrorist has unpleasant professional consequences for Amir.

When Isaac and Jory come to dinner at Amir and Emily’s swank Manhattan apartment (designed by Lee Savage ), Amir has a few too many drinks and all hell breaks loose as the conversation goes from “all religions have idiosyncrasies” to a hate-filled round of “your religion is bad.”

It turns out that Amir isn’t as removed from his religious upbringing as he thinks. He certainly has some opinions that offend his Jewish and African-American guests (and us) like thinking that blowing Israel off the map is a good idea and feeling “tribal” pride over the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Later, Emily and Jory both tragically find that their husbands’ views about how to treat their wives aren’t what they thought they were either.

The play is intelligent and witty – and very uncomfortable because of unspoken truths that lie just beneath the surface. We don’t want to have to talk about these things, let alone discuss them over dinner with friends, but the characters (all excellently portrayed and well directed by Edelstein) don’t give us any choice.

There is no escape (there’s no intermission in the 90-minute play) and we are forced to explore some of the deep-rooted thoughts we have about religion. We also have to face the fact that the ugliness on stage could show up at our next dinner party too if we and our guests were to serve up honest opinions about Islam and events taking place as we speak throughout the world.

How much are we able to separate ourselves from the roots of who we are? Not very, Akhbar would seem to point out.

Disgraced runs at Long Wharf's Main Stage, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Nov. 8. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm. Tickets $25-$85: 203-787-4282;

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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