Sydney Theatre Company resident director Sarah Goodes helms Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning New York drama
Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning 2012 drama is currently the most performed play in the United States – reason enough to see Sydney Theatre Company’s current production, arguably.
Disgraced folds issues of identity, racism and bigotry into a social drama that takes place entirely within an Upper East Side apartment. The danger of compressing big ideas and global dynamics like this into a 90-minute sitting-room drama is that you are forced to be reductive, and so end up with something that doesn’t feel plausible or ‘human’. Characters tend to be shoehorned into an ideological position, from which they are forced to act out the writer’s debate.
In Disgraced, the players are 40-something mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer Amir, his 30-something artist wife Emily, his 20-something nephew ‘Abe’ (not his real name – changed from Hussein), and Amir’s fellow lawyer Jory and her husband Isaac, a curator at New York’s prestigious Whitney Museum of American Art.
The set-up: Amir finally has a partnership at his law firm within his grasp, when Emily and Abe persuade him, against his judgment, to provide counsel to a local Imam who has been accused of fundraising for terrorist affiliates. Amir, raised Muslim by Pakistani parents but now (as he sardonically describes it) an “apostate”, argues there’s no constructive help he can provide to the Imam – but he’s also concerned that the firm’s Jewish partners won’t look favourably on this kind of client. And sure enough, the founding partner – his mentor – stops returning his calls.
As Amir’s career destabilises, Emily’s takes off: Isaac, who she has met socially through Amir and Jory, is considering her for the next major exhibition at the Whitney. It’s the kind of thing that could make her career. The work that’s under consideration? A series of paintings that appropriate Islamic imagery, iconography and techniques.
The story’s climactic dinner party sees both Emily and Amir’s professional quandaries come to a resolution – in ways that are mutually exclusive, and ultimately lead to an act of violence.
It’s surely not giving too much away to say that the basic premise of Akhtar's play is that underneath this liberal white collar upper-middle-class Upper East Side veneer, bigotry, racism and tribal instincts persist.
It’s a premise that calls to mind Yasmina Reza’s 2006 sitting-room-set drama The God of Carnage (adapted for film in 2011); and Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (adapted for film in 2012). These are not new ideas, though it’s obvious why they have particular currency in a post-9/11 world.
Disgraced starts well – the first scene, in which Emily sketches her husband in the likeness of Velazquez's ‘Portrait of Juan de Pareja’ (the painter’s ‘Moorish’ slave and assistant, who was freed from service and turned out to be a talented painter in his own right), is a clever compression of a can of worms within their relationship. It tells us a lot about how Emily sees Amir, how he sees himself, and how uncomfortable he is with having someone else use his race or religion as key markers of his identity.
Akhtar’s exploration of Amir’s ambivalence is the play’s most potent dramatic asset, played out in conversations that give a sense of the formative experiences that will shape his behaviour. Sachin Joab (making his mainstage debut after mostly small-screen credits) does nice work with Amir’s complexity: you’re always genuinely intrigued – and unsure – about what’s going on beneath Amir’s assured surface; how much of what he says does he truly believe?
Interesting comparisons arise out of Amir’s interactions with Jory (played by Paula Arundell), an African American lawyer who talks of having pulled herself to the top of her profession by her bootstraps, and who like Amir pivots between pragmatism and identity politics. (Arundell also has wonderful fun with this brash, straight-talking, power-suit-wearing player).
The other characters feel less convincing, and their behaviour is less plausible: Emily’s naivety and lack of empathy are either unrealistic or unlikeable; and the descent of Isaac, an insufferable art wanker who is nevertheless urbane, into a slavering bigot, feels forced. An extra-marital affair in the final stretch seems shoehorned in for the purposes of plot machinery – less character driven and more a necessary revelation to provoke the climactic ‘act of violence’. This is compounded by director Sarah Goodes and/or actor Glenn Hazeldine’s interpretation of Isaac, which doesn’t sell him as a credible love interest.
Add to these implausibilities a setting that is unadventurous at best: a rich banker/lawyer/tech entrepreneur with an artist girlfriend; a deserving outsider who is outdone for promotion to his firm’s partnership; a middle class dinner party in which civility is stripped back reveal animal aggression – all things we get a lot of on screen and stage.
Goodes’ production makes the most of the pauses and still moments in the text, and takes things slowly – which mostly works to give you time to digest and reflect, but occasionally feels overplayed, particularly in the context of the play’s melodramatic turn.
Rather than ramping up the drama for drama’s sake, it feels like everyone involved – playwright and production team – could take a step back and rely on the strength of the ideas explored and the inherent gravitas of the ‘reveal’. The point is no more or less profound than that humans are essentially tribal in mentality, are often more like animals when you back them hard enough into a corner, and don’t like having their identity reduced to a set of ‘markers’.
Disgraced has touched a nerve in the States, and judging by arguments about its merits and meaning in the foyer after opening night, more than one nerve. There’s plenty of meat to pick over. The difference between liking it or not will come down to whether you enjoy the way it’s served.