Disgraced

John San Nicolas and Celia Schaefer

Disgraced, presented by Fusion Theatre Company

Lensic Performing Arts Center, Sept. 26

Disgraced, the first play by the Pakistani-American writer Ayad Akhtar, earned its author the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama following its Off-Broadway premiere, which took place at the Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3. That production starred Aasif Mandvi (of The Daily Show fame), who was reportedly magnificent as the central character Amir, an American Muslim of mixed Pakistani and Indian heritage who, on the verge of attaining a partnership in a New York law firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions, gets caught up in a swirl of personal and professional conflicts born of bigotry, intercultural fear, and familial pressures. I didn’t see that production, but I did catch the play this past January when it had a limited run on Broadway newly envisioned with Hari Dhillon in the lead, and I didn’t like it. It was a slick production, so highly polished in its atmosphere of pretentious, striving yuppiedom that one had trouble finding sympathy for any of the characters.

I bought the play script, though, and after reading it a couple of times I decided the piece was probably better read than seen. I approached the Santa Fe run-out of Albuquerque’s Fusion Theatre Company charily, but it made me change my mind again. This was the final performance of the play’s first post-Broadway run, and it restored a sense of humanity that pulls in viewers and makes the piece intellectually and dramatically gripping. Under Jacqueline Reid’s direction, Amir and his wife, Emily, a painter, are both poised for stardom in their respective high-stakes fields, but neither is quite there yet. Richard K. Hogle’s set places them in the sort of decent Upper East Side apartment most up-and-comers actually live in, rather than the shelter-magazine concoctions they aspire to. There we grasp the essential engine of the couple’s relationship, one that is likely to leave onlookers feeling disturbed: He is an apostate, having turned against his Muslim upbringing to seek a life comfortably absorbed into something resembling an American mainstream, while she has selectively embraced aspects of Islam with romantic fervor (though stopping short of official conversion) and has incorporated elements of Islamic design into her artworks. In Fusion’s production, John San Nicolas (Amir) and Celia Schaefer (Emily) start a bit slow, the tempo of their exchanges seeming unnecessarily deliberate, but as things heat up they achieve a more conversational pace.

And things do heat up, first as Amir gives in to the entreaties of his wife and his nephew (played forthrightly by Samuel James Shoemaker-Trejo) to assist an imam who has gotten in trouble with the law, then as another married couple arrives for a dinner party: Isaac (played by Gregory Wagrowski), an art curator who holds the key to Emily’s success, and Jory (Angela Littleton), who is Amir’s colleague at the law firm. Remember the admonition not to discuss religion or politics at a social gathering? These folks didn’t get the memo, and things deteriorate fast. Akhtar lets loose complicating details: Jory, who is African-American, turns out to be competing with Amir for the same promotion; their law firm, run by Jewish partners, is especially sensitive when it comes to Muslim matters; a romantic affair between Emily and Isaac (who is also Jewish) lurks in the shadows. The evening ends in an act of shocking violence that turns Amir’s and Emily’s stances on Islam upside down.

A silent but potent accompaniment to the proceedings is a painting of Emily’s, predictably building on Islamic motifs, that hangs prominently in the apartment. Its design of four quadrants arranged around a central circle mirrors the relationship of the four major characters — a lapsed-Muslim man striving for assimilation, an American Caucasian woman romantically attached to Islam, an African-American woman lawyer who proclaims that she values order above justice, and a white male Jewish aesthete who turns out to be quite closed-minded — all encircling the central question (also represented by Amir’s nephew), which is how Islam fits into the matrix of Western society.

The actors bring requisite skill to their portrayals of obviously complicated parts, and all of them allow their characters to leave the audience hanging in vacillation. The play is perhaps something of a Rorschach test for viewers, who may choose to make an uneasy peace with it by seizing at one strand or another, since the conflict overall seems irreconcilable. Easy philosophical viewpoints are knocked off their base. The published play includes an interview in which Akhtar says: “There’ve been two kinds of reactions. One is people coming up to me to acknowledge that they’ve had a meaningful and emotional experience. They often share that in a physical way, a facial way, and there isn’t too much commentary. And then there’s another reaction, having to do with the trouble the play seems to release into the audience, the folks who come up to me and ask point-blank what it is I’m trying to say. Because the play has not resolved that for them.” 

Attendees at Fusion’s production must have fallen into both of those camps, and it is to the company’s credit that most of them are probably still puzzling their way to inconclusive irresolutions. Disgraced goes to the nub of an issue the world is wrestling with none too successfully, and the more we all think about it, the better. After writing Disgraced in 2012, Akhtar hardly took a break before forging ahead with two further plays, The Invisible Hand (2012) and The Who & the What (2014), and in the midst of the swirl he also produced a novel, American Dervish. Each tackles the question of Muslim cultural assimilation from a different angle. The Who & the What involves generational conflicts and gender politics within an Arab-American family, but it is lovingly cast as a domestic comedy. It might serve as a salve following the explosive confrontations of Disgraced, and yet it would keep the conversation going. What say you, Fusion?