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26, Oct 2015
Dinner party scene, photo by Mark Garvin

Disgraced, a play about Muslim American assimilation

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. Philadelphia Theatre Company.

 

You can take Islam out of your resume but you can never take Islam out of your soul. That’s the message of this 2013 play with a provocative premise by Ayad Akhtar.

It is one of the most-performed and most-discussed plays during the past two years; deservedly so because it reveals the perils of assimilation and complexities in the lives of American Muslims, but artificial devices mar what could have been a moving experience.

Amir is a prosperous corporate attorney with a major law firm, an assimilated 40-year-old New Yorker who was raised Muslim. He is played with attractive intensity by Pej Vahdat. Amir has changed his last name and his social security number, totally rejected his parents’s religion and bluntly criticizes it. He says “The Koran is about tribal life in the seventh century. You have to work real hard to root that shit out.”

Other critics have written about the play’s many contrivances. Yet there’s a separate, more fundamental flaw— the character of Amir’s wife. Emily is a blonde WASP artist who is enamored by Islam despite the fact that Amir is hostile to that culture. She seems not to know or care about what’s important to her husband. She could have engaged him in discussions about their differences, and that would have made an interesting drama. Instead, she blithely goes off on her obsession, while allowing his statements to sail invisibly by her blind eyes.

He says Islam is “a backward way of thinking.” She says it’s “a doorway to extraordinary freedom.”

Late in the play, she admits that she was naive. She’s worse than that. She’s uncaring. It’s hard to make such a person real; no wonder that Monette Magrath sounded like she was reciting lines.

The plot requires that Emily urge her husband to volunteer his help to a radical imam who’s accused of raising money for Hamas. That’s contrivance number 1. Then, although Amir is not legally representing the imam he nevertheless defends him in public and identifies himself as an attorney. The New York Times quotes him as if he’s the principal counsel for the cleric; contrivance number 2. This, of course, causes embarrassment for him in his law firm, which just happens to be headed by a Jewish man; contrivance 3.

Then it’s revealed that this smart attorney lied on his resume and job application, saying he was Indian rather than disclosing his Muslim Pakistani background, thus giving his firm an excuse for firing him; contrivance 4.

The plot centers on a dinner party that brings together Amir and his wife with a couple where the man, Isaac, is Jewish and the wife, Jory, black and apparently Christian. What’s more, Jory works in the same law firm as Amir. Then we learn that the Jewish man and Emily are having an affair.

There’s even the unbelievable expedience of leaving an unlocked door in an apartment where $600 shirts hang in the closet and expensive art on the walls. I’ve lost count of the number of contrivances.

Our hero winds up spitting (literately spitting) in the face of his guest and punching out his wife. Isaac says “you people are animals.” Amir admits that he felt pride when the towers fell on 9/11 because “it’s in my bones.” If the script were by a person not Muslim, the playwright would justifiably be accused of racism.

Take away any one of these artifices and the plot would collapse like a house of cards. What a shame, because a great potential was lost. Disgraced deserves kudos for its premise; it did not deserve a Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Ben Graney and Aime Donna Kelly were fine as the other couple. Mary B. Robinson directed with efficiency, while Jason Simms’ set of a luxurious Manhattan apartment was fabulous.

See other reviews in The Cultural Critic