Chicago Theater Review: DISGRACED (Goodman)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: DISGRACED (Goodman)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 21, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

DRAMATIC PROFILING

Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre.In the three years since American Theater Company debuted this corrosive cultural tragicomedy on the North Side, Disgraced has become a massive hit, with revivals on Broadway, slated productions at 10 major regional theaters, as well as 32 more in the next two years and a film version with HBO. Now, helmed by original director Kimberley Senior, it’s returned to Chicago, specifically to Goodman Theatre in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory and Seattle Repertory theaters.

It’s no surprise: This biting-to-bitter incitement by Ayad Akhtar pushes all the buttons. Racial profiling, self-hatred, ethnic stereotypes, covert racism, terrorist sympathies, adultery, domestic violence, workplace sabotage, whispering campaigns, tribal infighting, minorities competing for token triumphs—these unstable elements erupt all over John Lee Beatty’s elegant townhouse parlor. Nothing if not ambitious, with everything but a teenage clockmaker named Ahmed Mohamed, Disgraced flagrantly stirs up its audience—so much so that the real payoff may be the post-show discussions triggered by so much trouble.

Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Bernard White (Amir), J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) and Zakiya Young (Jory) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre.

Born in America with parents from pre-Pakistan India, Amir (Bernard White, dynamic even in defeat) is a hard-charging, deal-making lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions. (Significantly, he changed his last name from “Kapoor.”) Now he’s married to Emily (Nisi Sturgis, solid and sweet), a blonde American artist who actually loves him for himself. (Still her latest “Orientalist” work, a painting of her husband in the style of a Moor’s portrait by a disciple of Velasquez, unwittingly displays Amir’s pride in possessing a white princess.)

Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Bernard White (Amir) and Zakiya Young (Jory) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre

Amir’s restless young nephew Hussein (ardent Behzad Dabu), now changed to Abe, marvels at his uncle’s success but frets over his denial of his Muslim roots, his skepticism over the truth of the Koran, and his refusal to defend an imam accused of terrorism. When Abe is later threatened with deportation because of his support for the supposedly traitorous imam, he’s furious that his uncle won’t help him. Hating America for dispossessing Allah’s sacred land, Hussein (no longer Abe and a young jihadist in the making) curses him for abandoning the faith of his father.

Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Zakiya Young (Jory) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre.

Completing the characters are the couple’s intimate friends, Jory (Zaliya Young), Amir’s African American law firm colleague, and Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), her Jewish husband (and a biased curator for Emily’s artwork in an exhibition sardonically called “Impossible Heroes”). In the course of an evening’s get-together the two couples unearth many secrets. Exposed are glaring contradictions that go to the heart of the moral and mental racial divides that cut through America.

Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Bernard White (Amir) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre.

Sadly, Amir is so torn up he could be split into five characters in his own wrong. If it’s possible to commit your own identity theft, this conflicted overachiever does just that. Anticipating a racial profile, Amir openly complies at airports, all but inviting TSA to single him out for inspection. He attacks the Koran (which means “Submission”) as the product of backward tribes filled with “desert pain” and rage against the constant present. This bad book wants to preserve forever a barbaric morality—and reverse 1,500 years of intellectual and social progress in order to force the world to conform to the vision of Mohammad.

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre

But a moment later this supposed apostate can express a small and secret satisfaction over the destruction of the Twin Towers. (The contrived contradiction seems so sudden and so uncharacteristic that it’s almost implausible.) On top of this vicious sympathy, Amir has prevaricated about his past. But, as if to justify his self-invention, he’s also been falsely tainted with collusion with the accused imam, simply because he visited the old man in jail. He condemns Islam as “submission,” but when he discovers a flaw in his marriage Amir behaves as tyrannically as any harem-owning pasha punishing an erring wife.

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre.

In short, Amir is Exhibits A through Z on how you can’t run away from your roots. But what does that ethic determinism say about the American dream of getting a second chance to remake yourself?

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Behzad Dabu (Abe) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre

It isn’t just Amir who’s caught in the cultural crossfire of this cultural identity crisis. As if to even the nastiness, Akhtar works hard to expose the others’ blind spots and phony tolerance. Hardliner Jory proves herself to be a proto-fascist who staunchly believes in “order over justice.” Isaac is an opportunist who will advance Emily’s career in exchange for a careless conjugation. Only Emily and Hussein seem true to themselves, perhaps because art and ideology give them a direction that precludes hypocrisy.

Bernard White (Amir) and Nisi Sturgis (Emily) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre (September 12 – October 18, 2015).

Everything goes south in this bleak and uncompromising one-act. Nobody emerges unscathed. Betrayed in bed and at work, Amir is all but reduced to the man without a country. Kimberly Senior’s taut staging ramps up the air of menace that’s obvious from small talk at the start (which a few shallow souls in the opening night audience initially mistook for a culture-clashing sitcom).

Bernard White (Amir) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre

As its title implies, Disgraced is an equal-opportunity accusation in action, a crash course in betrayal that’s fascinating to watch but would be dreadful to experience. Given shock effects that hit too close for comfort, seldom has the fourth wall been more welcome—or more invisible.

Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior at Goodman Theatre.photos by Liz Lauren

Disgraced
Goodman Theatre
Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on October 18, 2015
EXTENDED to October 25, 2015
for tickets, call 312.443.3800
or visit GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on more Chicago Theater,
visit TheatreinChicago.com

Comments on this entry are closed.