Friday, January 15, 2016

Disgraced at the Seattle Repertory Theatre

Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily), Zakiya Young (Jory) and J. Anthony Crane (Isaac) in Disgraced. Photo courtesy Seattle Repertory Theatre
Disgraced at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Kimberly Senior, is one of the more difficult plays I’ve watched in a long time. I say ONE OF because Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I recently reviewed for The News Tribune, is just as difficult if not more so. But Arcadia does not elicit the kinds of impassioned reactions Disgraced does. As a case in point, during a particularly violent confrontation in the play a man in the audience jumped to his feet, shouted “Stop that!” (and something else I could not hear), and stormed out of the theater. I’ve seen people walk out on plays before, but quietly, usually during intermission, I’ve never seen anyone storm out with such vehemence.
As another case in point, the producers know this play is controversial, and they therefore have a discussion with the audience at the end of every performance. They call it the second act to a one-act play. The discussion during the second act on opening night was heated. The majority of comments I heard were highly critical of the play, saying it was cliché-ridden, that it was a disgrace to the Seattle Rep, and that it painted Muslims in an unfair and dangerous manner. One commentator dismissed it as a half-baked version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with a bunch of sophisticates ripping each other to shreds. (The similarities to Virginia Woolf were obvious, but I think that commentator missed the point, and I think it was a much better play than he thought it was.) Another man in the audience, who identified himself as a scientist, criticized it based on a 9/11 conspiracy theory.
Bernard White (Amir), Nisi Sturgis (Emily) and Behzad Dabu (Abe) in Disgraced.
Photo courtesy Seattle Repertory Theatre
One of the actors, Behzad Dabu, said the clichés were intentional and were used to expose the fallacies of the clichés. And finally, the man who had walked out so dramatically came back for the talk-back and attempted to explain himself and, in the process, got so mad that he threw the wireless microphone to the floor and stormed out again.
That’s how incendiary this play is.
Emily (Nisi Sturgis) is an artist. She usually paints geometric abstractions with intricate patterns based on Islamic art. However, as the play opens she is painting a portrait of her Muslim husband, Amir (Bernard White), a successful lawyer who has renounced his religion, calls himself an apostate, has changed his name and claims Indian heritage when in fact his heritage is Pakistani.
They are having guests over for dinner. Isaac (J. Anthony Crane) is a Jew and an art dealer who has arranged to give Emily her first one-person show. He is married to Jory (Zakiya Young), a black attorney who works in the law office with Amir. When these four characters come together in Amir and Nisi’s apartment, the fireworks explode. At first their sniping and sarcasm is sophisticated, intelligent, and funny, bordering on glib; but when the topic of 9/11 and Islamic terrorists comes up, the thoughtful repartee turns to emotional attacks. I will not give away any more of the plot.
A fifth character is Amir’s nephew Abe (Behzad Dabu), who is intent on protesting the arrest of his Imam, whom he believes was arrested on trumped up charges. Emily has asked Amir to help defend the Imam.
The ensemble cast is excellent. White stands out as a conflicted character who is the most complex and in some ways the most despicable of the lot. None of the other characters, with the exception of Abe, are likeable. None of them are one-dimensional either—a tribute to Akhtar’s skill as a writer, as well as to the actors and the director, Kimberly Senior. These characters offer tremendous challenges to actors, and this ensemble cast handles them well.
As indicated, Abe may well be the most sincere and the most likeable character in the play, and Dabu, the only actor who was in the original Chicago cast in 2012, is excellent.
The set by John Lee Beatty is outstanding, and the use of revolves in the only set change is mind-boggling and seemingly magical. The lighting by Christine A. Binder is also outstanding, especially in the lovely way lighting changes lull the audience through scene changes.
Disgraced won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for Best Play. It received mostly rave reviews. When Googling it I found only one negative review. Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss called the play a "minefield... that feels all too deliberately booby-trapped by the playwright." That sentiment seemed to me to be the majority opinion of the people who spoke up during the after-play discussion. In part, I understand, but with the exception of one dark twist at the end, which was disturbing to me, I tend to agree more with the critics who praised it.
Disgraced runs about 85 minutes with no intermission. The post-play discussion adds less than a half hour.

7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Jan. 31
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St.

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