Review: 'Disgraced' at Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

Much like a painting in a gallery, your perspective will shape how you see Ayad Ahktar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Disgraced. You may experience awe and disbelief; shock and horror. However you see it, you will feel it: the playwright’s intent from its inception. It is a show to be thought about and talked about. I left the theater reflective and pensive, craving a dialogue with someone else who had just witnessed what I had on stage. 

The play opens on an opulent penthouse in New York City, owned by Amir (Rajesh Bose), a mergers and acquisitions attorney, and Emily (Nicole Lowrance), an up-and-coming artist whose main themes embody Islamic imagery.  I’m not sure that the characters are meant to be likeable: to me, they appear pretentious and self-absorbed: the kind of people I have had to tolerate at parties under duress. But maybe that’s what I brought to the gallery.  

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Mohit Gautam (Abe),
Nicole Lowrance (Emily), and Rajesh Bose (Amir). Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Enter Amir’s nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam). One of Abe’s friends, a mosque leader, has been wrongly accused of raising money for the Taliban and Abe wants his uncle’s help in his friend’s legal defense. Amir wants nothing to do with this venture. After coaxing from his wife, Amir goes to the man’s   hearing as a supporter, only to be misrepresented in a New York Times article as a member of the imam’s defense team. 

Tie this in with Emily’s potential to be in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s upcoming show, curated by Isaac (Benim Foster), who happens to be married to Amir’s coworker, Jory (Shirine Babb).  A dinner party to solidify the deal spirals into some of the darkest places I’ve seen on stage: scene three is shocking because so much is laid bare about prejudices, assumptions, and fears, often with extreme antagonism. One moment was the quietest I have ever heard in a theater space during a performance (if you see the show, you’ll know which moment I’m talking about).   

While breathtakingly shocking in its jaw-clenching dialogue, the text also is wonderful in its cohesiveness. Poorly written literature often has additional dialogue that fills time and is inconsequential to the arc of the story. In Ahktar’s play, everything is significant: phrases can be linked back together as the plot progresses. The words are beautifully woven into a 90 minute masterpiece deserving of its Pulitzer. 

There was not a poor performance to be seen on the Long Wharf stage. Mr. Bose plays a tortured man struggling with identity with intensity and flourish. While I disliked his character’s phoniness, I now see that his insincerity was key to the role.  Emily too was a character that I did not warm up to at first. However, Ms. Lowrance’s performance did bring me around during Emily’s passionate discourse on Islamic contributions to Western Art and her sincerity toward Abe’s predicament; it all comes from a good place, albeit a naïve one. She too evolves – albeit painfully – into a sadder but wiser woman. Mr. Foster plays the catalyst that leads to the self-destruction of this couple with a suave cockiness. Ms. Babb plays the quintessential, high-powered, New York attorney with polish and finesse. Her character’s focus on order rather than justice in the law seems to keep her better balanced in this upsetting atmosphere, but then she reveals that she too has a breaking point. 

The scenic design by Lee Savage is perfect: an impeccable New York City penthouse complete with parquet floors and stainless steel appliances. The touches of blue allude to the lapis lazuli so prized by Islamic artists centuries ago. The lighting design by Eric Southern was especially creative. I enjoyed the evolving colors on the Rose Window-esque painting during the scene changes, demonstrating the developing tensions in the play. The direction by Gordon Edelstein was subtle yet powerful; minor gestures by the actors spoke volumes about relationships developing and breaking apart.

Mr. Akhtar mentions in an article in the playbill that one’s reading of Disgraced is very telling. The play certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of race, perception, privilege, and interpretation. I don’t think the play is about who’s right or wrong, but more about the discussion surrounding the topics addressed in the play. If you want to walk out of a show questioning and reflecting on your values – a compelling, thought-provoking piece of theater – look no further than the Long Wharf. Running now through November 8th.