Los Angeles Theater Review: DISGRACED (Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum)

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by Paul Birchall on June 25, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

ANYTHING BUT DISGRACEFUL

Hari Dhillon and Emily Swallow in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.Sometimes plays that win the Pulitzer Prize do so less for their content and more for the ideas they embody and the zeitgeist of their time. It’s just an added bonus when the work turns out to be a good play as well as a snapshot of a certain era or time period modality. Such is the case of Ayad Akhtar’s ferocious drama of race and religion.

Yes, here is a play that encompasses themes of assimilation and political opposition among Muslim people in America and does so in a way that’s framed as a polarized debate. It should be as barren as the dust bowl. However, it’s also simply a good play, crackling with rage and frustration, but also with charm, even as it’s punctuated with scabrous flashes of dark humor. We can’t help but think that it’s a pity it took so long to get to Los Angeles (it won the Pulitzer in 2013), but, due to the unfortunate world trends, one is aware that the drama is even more timely now than when it played New York.

Behzad Dabu in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.Amir (Hari Dhillon) is a promising young attorney of Pakistani descent, the son of Muslim immigrants, who appears to be poised to achieve the Great American Dream in its glittering prize-filled entirety. He sports a Manhattan Upper East Side apartment, is on the verge of being named partner in his Jewish attorney-owned law firm, and married to lovely, aspiring young artist Emily (Emily Swallow), who uses Islamic themes in her art, even though she is as white as snow atop a polar bear’s nose.

And yet, all Amir has achieved has come at a price: He has tacitly allowed his co-workers to think he’s Jewish, not Muslim, and, when he is coerced by a more politically engaged cousin (Behzad Dabu) into offering advice to a jailed Muslim cleric, his behavior abruptly comes into conflict with his comfortable all-American life. During an increasingly fraught dinner party with a fellow lawyer (Karen Pittman) at Amir’s firm and a gallery owner (J. Anthony Crane), whom Emily hopes will represent her, arguments flair about the nature of Fundamentalist Islam and, indeed, about how Amir feels about his life as a red pepper in the American melting pot.

Hari Dhillon and Behzad Dabu in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.

It’s a pleasure to watch the intellectual acrobatics of Akhtar’s wonderfully savage dialogue, which, with its politically charged philosophical conceits and thrilling emotional jags, are reminiscent of the Golden Age of “idea” plays by authors like David Hare and Wallace Shawn. This is one of those shows where you find yourself agreeing with the last thing someone says in an argument – and Akhtar’s most assured skill is his ability to raise issues that are steeped in ambiguity. The play artfully expresses the notion that the gulf of mutual incomprehension between the Muslim East and the Consumerist West is massive and really is (in this era) incapable of being forded.

Karen Pittman and Hari Dhillon in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.Performances in director Kimberly Senior’s intimate production nicely simmer until events take a striking left turn into an act of rageful violence that is as shocking as it is surprising. Characterizations are richly nuanced and we actually start to feel sad for developing an increasing distaste for Dhillon’s pragmatic, but ultimately self-hating Amir.

If there’s a concern with Akhtar’s drama, it’s that while the character of Amir is a full-fledged, well-developed figure, the supporting roles tend to embody dogma more than personality. There’s the liberal, but ultimately judgmental Jew ably played by Crane – and then there’s the white, liberal theoretical fan of Islamic culture (who doesn’t really know what that means) portrayed by Swallow. While Dhillon’s central protagonist is fascinatingly nuanced and, indeed, unsure of himself in American society, the other figures seem like talking points more than humans. And, too, some may find the characters’ diatribes to verge on being shrill and dogmatic.

Emily Swallow and Hari Dhillon in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.

I can see how some might think this: There’s a faint whiff of pedanticism to many of the positions, and the playwright commits the mistake of thinking that the way to solve problems is to argue about them to the point of war, when perhaps a more mature approach might be to just try to get along with people who are different from you. However, it is still a genuine pleasure to see a show as straight-out intelligent and moving as this.

Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman and J Anthony Crane in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.

J Anthony Crane and Emily Swallow in Ayad Akhtar’s DISGRACED at Mark Taper Forum.photos by Craig Schwartz

Disgraced
Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on July 17, 2016
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG

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