Friday the 13th: At the end of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, the cast comes out for the curtain call, takes in the applause, waits for it to die down, looks out at the audience for a good while, and then leaves. For a few moments everything is quiet. There’s something fitting about silence. It gives you room to breathe and think. It doesn’t ask for agreement or conclusion—it’s its own thing.
The production of this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama just happened to open on the day of the Paris attacks, and what seemed to be a timely play got more than a little timelier. When France’s problems with Islam and the banning of the veil came up during a tense dinner party argument on stage, you could feel the actors' lines land on the audience, jagged and challenging. There was no reaction.
In many ways, that curtain call was a much sharper and cunning ending than Akhtar’s, which blunts a far sharper and more radical play: a drama screaming to get out in front of an audience and shock it into submission all the way to the end. That this doesn't happen is a shame and represents a special kind of failure—the success that evades greatness.
Amir and Emily are the type of couple people gush about: “He’s a lawyer, she’s an artist, they’re fantastic!” They might even add, “He’s Muslim, she’s white, that’s fantastic!” Their apartment is certainly fantastic and the play opens with a tableau worthy of Noel Coward: Emily is painting a picture of Amir in the manner of Valázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Yet there’s no sparkle or joy; just a smarmy mix of grievance and privilege.
Amir might be posing, but Emily’s the poseur. Overly proud of her suave Muslim husband, eager to use his connections to meet a powerful Whitney curator, and chiding him for not defending an Imam accused of funneling money to Hamas, Emily is a recognizable mix of progressive politics and upper class hauteur. Nisi Sturgis is expert at catching the smug, vaulting ambition behind Emily’s sincerity. And Bernard White shows how attractive that might be to a man like Amir, who is just a bit cruder than we’d like him to be.
In this way, the play is immediately off-putting. Of course, Akhtar’s just setting us up. We know Amir’s life is going to come crashing down -- that’s why many of us come to the theater in the first place -- and so we have more than a rooting interest in seeing it happen. Just as Emily is destined to betray him, so will we. And it’s to Akhtar’s credit that he shows us just how easy it all is.
So there’s a real argument here. Amir desperately does not want to take on the role of the Muslim. And in a fundamental way, he is not Muslim, just as we can choose not to be Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist. But to do this, Amir must take on a double consciousness. He is both a free man, able to choose the scope and breadth of his life, and on the run from a culture quick to label him a terrorist. That he handles these expectations with grace and imagination should be celebrated. The problem for Amir is that culture never quits and like a viper in paradise, it is always testing, teasing out the moment when it can strike and kill.
Akhtar finds the perfect representation of these pressures in the ebb and flow of a dinner party conversation. From Albee, to Guare, to LaBute, and even Shepard, American playwrights know that the dinner party only seems innocuous. It doesn't have any of the outwards signs of danger that we're used to: there's not the frenzy of the mob, or the vile rhetoric of right-wing demagogues, or even the fear-mongering of Fox News. It just seems a nice way to sit back, relax, and talk, and that’s what makes it so dangerous.
When Amir’s colleague, Jory, and her husband, the powerful Whitney curator, Issac, come to dinner, Amir will not survive the onslaught of conviviality. But again, we wouldn’t expect him to. How he goes down, though, is where Disgraced distinguishes itself as a piece of potent, political theater. Each turn of the plot twists in the same way: Amir is consistently more reasoned, honest, and alert to the world than his wife and their guests. Yet they seem to win every argument, and do so by reducing Amir to the role of the Muslim, a role he absolutely rejects.
That Amir lashes out in increasingly heinous ways as the play unfolds seems neither what he wishes nor who he is. However, the other characters need for him to be the “Muslim” and when they finally get what they want, they flick him away. I wish Akhtar had left it at that, or followed the rude logic of Amir’s sickening response.
Instead, we get the wrap up scene, the coda to the main event. The play’s outrages are reduced to rueful melodrama and quiet reflection. As the play ends, Amir stares at Emily’s reworking of the Valázquez painting and sees the man he once was. That might have the feel of profundity, but it’s an astounding retreat from the violent complexity of the previous scene. Its formal perfection, one Amir looking at another, hides a lack of will and imaginative force. Akhtar takes us to the brink—an absolute joy—and then meekly walks us back to safety and privilege, as if none of it mattered. I want more commitment. When you throw a bomb, you should let it explode.
Disgraced runs through December 27 at the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit www.berkeleyrep.org.