Most plays are of the moment. A few are forever.
Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” is certainly of the moment. It speaks volumes about the racial/ethnic/religious conflicts that are a hallmark of contemporary life.
The question is whether this Pulitzer-winning drama has what it takes to speak to audiences decades in the future. Based on the production of “Disgraced” now on stage at the Unicorn, I’m giving a tentative “yes.” Religious antagonism is nothing new and there’s no reason to believe it’s going to evaporate anytime soon.
This is not to say that the Unicorn production is perfect. It feels oddly unformed as if director Sidonie Garrett and her players are still working their way toward an understanding of the material.
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Well, there’s a lot here to understand.
Unfolding in four scenes — and with a running time of only 80 minutes —the play centers on Amir (Alexander Salamat), a Pakistani-American who has bought into the American dream big time. He’s a tough (possibly ruthless) corporate lawyer on Wall Street, and he’s got the obscenely expensive suits (with $600 shirts) to prove it.
His wife Emily (Molly Denninghoff) is an all-American girl — smart, attractive and talented. She’s an artist who recycles and reshapes elements from traditional Islamic art (whether this is inspiration, appreciation or exploitation of another culture is up for debate).
In the first scene, Amir is begged by his nephew Abe to provide legal aid to an imam accused of raising funds for a terrorist group. Amir protests that he’s not a criminal attorney...besides, he has turned his back on the religion of his youth.
But to keep peace in the family he attends a rally on behalf of the cleric, speaks a few innocuous words, and finds his name and that of his law firm on the pages of the New York Times.
It’s all downhill from there.
The heart of the play is a dinner party in Amir and Emily’s apartment. The guests are Isaac (Matt Rapport), an art dealer whose approval can rocket Emily into the big time, and his African American wife Jory (Shawna Pena-Dowling), a lawyer at Amir’s firm.
The evening is already tense because Amir senses he’s on the outs with his firm’s partners. And the rhetoric gets ramped up when the talk turns to Emily’s upcoming show.
When Isaac rhapsodizes about her pan-cultural explorations, Amir can barely keep from snorting. He’s spent most of his life running away from his religious heritage — he calls the Quran “one long hate letter to humanity” — and has little patience with those who romanticize a faith they know only superficially.
Intellectualizing about Islam, Amir argues, is pointless: “Muslims don’t think about it. They submit.”
That Isaac is a Jew — a secular one, but still — only ratchets up the tension. Toss into the mix a black woman, a case of infidelity, and cutthroat office politics and you’ve got all the makings of a major meltdown.
The play is one long fuse quickly sputtering its way to a keg of gunpowder. When it finally goes off nothing will be the same.
“Disgraced” ultimately asks if it’s possible to turn your back on your culture without falling victim to self-loathing. The answers it provides are far from comforting.
“Disgraced” continues at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., through Nov. 12. See unicorntheatre.org or call 816-531-7529.