A CurtainUp Review
Amir (Aasif Mandvi), a successful Pakistani-American lawyer and his adoring white American wife Emily (Heidi Armbruster), who is also achieving recognition as a fine artist, appear to be deeply in love and in complete harmony as a couple when we first see them on Saturday morning in their Upper East Side New York apartment (smartly designed by Lauren Helpern). She is sketching a portrait of him, inspired by a portrait of a slave by Valesquez. As he stands nattily dressed from the waist up — below he has on only his boxer shorts — It is clear by their chatter and show of affection that their racial divide has not been a divide. It has, in fact, proven a catalyst and an inspiration to Emily whose recent paintings have been notable and noticed for their embrace of ancient Islamic tradition and design.
Things are destined to get out of hand, however, when they are visited by Amirs Pakistani-born nephew Abe (Omar Maskati) and later that evening when two business colleagues— Isaac (Erik Jensen), a Jewish art curator from the Whitney and his African-American wife Jory (Karen Pittman), a lawyer who works with Amir for the same firm — come for dinner.
There is always room for another provocative play (I'm thinking of God of Carnage and this seasons Grace) in which people are seen moving characteristically from the rational to the irrational when faced with the need to either defend or refute ingrained social, religious and cultural beliefs. There is certainly room for this taut, short play in which no punches are pulled (quite literally). It takes the challenge one step farther and in a way that makes us see how a group of relatively high-minded, purportedly open-minded people cant see or avoid the pitfalls that inevitably come with being right and/or righteous.
Disgraced is commendable for the way it doesnt shy away from dealing with topics and issues that we are all taught to avoid in polite company. Though not quite on the same level as the hyperbolic histrionics that fuel Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it is nevertheless filled with adrenaline pumping theatrics that go quickly to the heart of what's at stake. At stake for Amir is how to maintain his guarded image as despite his Pakistani roots. Fundamental to his view of "intelligence," is his rejection of the Muslim faith, certainly the best way to survive in the current political, professional and social climate, specifically to secure his future with the law firm whose two senior partners are Jewish.
Although he is adamant about not complying with his nephews plea to help an imprisoned Imam, Amir relents to Emily's urging and goes to the prison where his presence is noted by the press and subsequently viewed unfavorably by the law firm. The strain of Amirs impulsive decision to please Emily inevitably grows into rage when he begins to sense that his future has been compromised by his wife's liberal mindedness.
Emotions begin to spiral out of control at the dinner party, presumably an opportunity for Isaac to confirm that he will mount an exhibition of Emily's paintings. On a darker note, Jory, who was originally mentored by Amir but is now a rival, is delegated to unleash some jarring news both of a professional and personal nature. Under Kimberly Seniors excellent direction, all hell inevitably breaks lose as Isaac feels compelled to stand up to the raging and ranting Amir with his own intellectually incendiary rebuttals.
What makes Disgraced so compelling and also ironic is in the way in which we see how good intentions turn sour and good deeds are punished. All five of the provocateurs are worthy of being seen as identity-challenged. Mandvi, a Daily Show contributor, is excellent as the fast-talking, upwardly mobile Amir whose fevered opportunism is as much a motivation as is his fervent secularism. Armbruster gives us a poignant portrait of Emily, the well-meaning, blindly liberal wife. Jensen gives a nicely nuanced performance as Isaac who ultimately has to work as hard to define himself as do the others, especially Pittman as the African-American who is now unapologetically climbing up the corporate latter. Maskati is impressively intense as Abe, whose allegiances are as vehemently expressed as tellingly as his real name Hussein is conveniently suppressed.
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