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Theater Review: "Disgraced"

Hari Dhillon and Emily Swallow in in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play “Disgraced."
Photo credit:
Craig Schwartz

What is it about dinner parties and animosity? To read contemporary playwrights, you’d almost conclude a dinner party is a passport to danger and broken friendships, sometimes even violence. Consider Yasmina Reza’s recent “God of Carnage” and Edward Albee’s classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” to name just two.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” offers another in which tempers flare, friendships fray and deep-seated bigotry is exposed in successive “normal” conversations, capped by one alcohol-fueled night among friends.

“Disgraced” plays through July 17 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Religion (especially Islam) and secularism, perception vs. reality and the sense of “otherness” in a pluralistic society vs. the need to belong (if only in order to get ahead) are a few of the elements underlying the events that take place in the spacious New York apartment of attorney Amir (Hari Dhillon) – who describes himself as an “apostate Muslim” – and his blonde wife Emily (Emily Swallow), an artist who uses Muslim influences in her work.

Amir is an American-born corporate attorney angling for a partnership in a firm with no “foreign-sounding” names among the partners.

A visit from Amir’s 22-year-old nephew Abe Jensen (aka Hussein Malik) forces Amir to confront his heritage in a way he’d rather not. Abe (Behzad Dabu) asks his uncle to come in on the case of an Imam who (according to Abe) is unjustly accused of aiding terrorists.

Amir is reluctant for the above reason, but does agree to show up at a hearing, after which he is named in a newspaper article as “supporting the Imam.” How will this affect Amir’s ambitions?

Meanwhile, Emily is visited by Isaac (J Anthony Crane), a curator at New York’s Whitney art museum, where she hopes to have her work displayed.

Isaac likes the art and agrees to take a large piece hanging in their home for the exhibit, along with several others. Her enthusiasm for Muslim art (“I mean, without the Arabs, we wouldn’t even have visual perspective”) prompts this response from

Isaac: “You know what you’re going to be accused of? Orientalism.”

This trio, along with Isaac’s down-to-earth African American wife Jory (Karen Pittman) – another attorney at Amir’s firm – will meet for dinner in the explosive third scene, where alcohol-fueled tempers flare, friendships fray and the unthinkable happens.

One might argue whether the incivility on display would set in as quickly as it does here, but I’ve always thought the admission that “I’m a Neanderthal” by a character in “God Of Carnage” more honest and more generalizable than any of us would like to admit. Don’t we all lie to ourselves and others until push comes to shove?

Kimberly Senior directs with a sure hand and good attention to the playwright’s admonition that this be played at a good clip and that this 90-minute play not be allowed to bog down in the forest of prickly insults. 

Four of the five cast members have played in “Disgraced,” either on Broadway or in Chicago, which may explain their apparent ease with the characters and dialogue. All five are excellent at playing types that work hard to defy categorization.

Dhillon’s cautious but obviously conflicted Amir is a coiled case study in identity crisis, more than a little annoyed by Swallow’s quiet, assured Emily and almost infuriated by Dabu’s Abe, who has changed his name for social reasons but not forsaken Islam.

Crane’s Isaac is the smug Jew in the group (who has his own suspicions about where Amir’s sentiments lie), while Pittman represents another oft-maligned minority.

There’s plenty of fodder for discord here, and Akhtar provides it in clever but biting dialogue in this fine 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

John Lee Beatty’s spacious set, Jennifer von Mayrhauser’s costumes give a good feel for time and place. Christine A. Binder’s lighting design and Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design aid Akhtar in turning the electricity (dramatic and manmade) up to almost unbearable levels.

The details

“Disgraced” plays through July 17, 2016 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.

Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm

Tickets: (213) 628-2772  or www.centertheatregroup.org.