Pasa Re­views Fu­sion Theatre Com­pany’s Dis­graced

Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, Sept. 26

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Dis­graced, the first play by the Pak­istani-Amer­i­can writer Ayad Akhtar, earned its au­thor the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama fol­low­ing its Off-Broad­way pre­miere, which took place at the Lin­coln Cen­ter Theater/LCT3. That pro­duc­tion starred Aasif Mandvi (of The Daily

Show fame), who was re­port­edly mag­nif­i­cent as the cen­tral char­ac­ter Amir, an Amer­i­can Mus­lim of mixed Pak­istani and In­dian her­itage who, on the verge of at­tain­ing a part­ner­ship in a New York law firm spe­cial­iz­ing in merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions, gets caught up in a swirl of per­sonal and pro­fes­sional con­flicts born of big­otry, in­ter­cul­tural fear, and fa­mil­ial pres­sures. I didn’t see that pro­duc­tion, but I did catch the play this past Jan­uary when it had a lim­ited run on Broad­way newly en­vi­sioned with Hari Dhillon in the lead, and I didn’t like it. It was a slick pro­duc­tion, so highly pol­ished in its at­mos­phere of pre­ten­tious, striv­ing yup­piedom that one had trou­ble find­ing sym­pa­thy for any of the char­ac­ters.

I bought the play script, though, and af­ter read­ing it a cou­ple of times I de­cided the piece was prob­a­bly bet­ter read than seen. I ap­proached the Santa Fe run-out of Al­bu­querque’s Fu­sion Theatre Com­pany char­ily, but it made me change my mind again. This was the fi­nal per­for­mance of the play’s first post-Broad­way run, and it re­stored a sense of hu­man­ity that pulls in view­ers and makes the piece in­tel­lec­tu­ally and dra­mat­i­cally grip­ping. Un­der Jac­que­line Reid’s di­rec­tion, Amir and his wife, Emily, a pain­ter, are both poised for star­dom in their re­spec­tive high-stakes fields, but nei­ther is quite there yet. Richard K. Hogle’s set places them in the sort of de­cent Up­per East Side apart­ment most up-and-com­ers ac­tu­ally live in, rather than the shel­ter-mag­a­zine con­coc­tions they as­pire to. There we grasp the es­sen­tial en­gine of the cou­ple’s re­la­tion­ship, one that is likely to leave on­look­ers feel­ing dis­turbed: He is an apos­tate, hav­ing turned against his Mus­lim up­bring­ing to seek a life com­fort­ably ab­sorbed into some­thing re­sem­bling an Amer­i­can main­stream, while she has se­lec­tively em­braced as­pects of Is­lam with ro­man­tic fer­vor (though stop­ping short of of­fi­cial con­ver­sion) and has in­cor­po­rated el­e­ments of Is­lamic de­sign into her art­works. In Fu­sion’s pro­duc­tion, John San Ni­co­las (Amir) and Celia Schaefer (Emily) start a bit slow, the tempo of their ex­changes seem­ing un­nec­es­sar­ily de­lib­er­ate, but as things heat up they achieve a more con­ver­sa­tional pace.

And things do heat up, first as Amir gives in to the en­treaties of his wife and his nephew (played forthrightly by Sa­muel James Shoe­maker-Trejo) to as­sist an imam who has got­ten in trou­ble with the law, then as another mar­ried cou­ple ar­rives for a din­ner party: Isaac (played by Gre­gory Wa­growski), an art cu­ra­tor who holds the key to Emily’s suc­cess, and Jory (An­gela Lit­tle­ton), who is Amir’s col­league at the law firm. Re­mem­ber the ad­mo­ni­tion not to dis­cuss re­li­gion or pol­i­tics at a so­cial gath­er­ing? These folks didn’t get the memo, and things de­te­ri­o­rate fast. Akhtar lets loose com­pli­cat­ing de­tails: Jory, who is African-Amer­i­can, turns out to be com­pet­ing with Amir for the same pro­mo­tion; their law firm, run by Jewish part­ners, is es­pe­cially sen­si­tive when it comes to Mus­lim mat­ters; a ro­man­tic af­fair be­tween Emily and Isaac (who is also Jewish) lurks in the shad­ows. The evening ends in an act of shock­ing vi­o­lence that turns Amir’s and Emily’s stances on Is­lam up­side down.

A silent but po­tent ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the pro­ceed­ings is a paint­ing of Emily’s, pre­dictably build­ing on Is­lamic mo­tifs, that hangs promi­nently in the apart­ment. Its de­sign of four quad­rants ar­ranged around a cen­tral cir­cle mir­rors the re­la­tion­ship of the four ma­jor char­ac­ters — a lapsed-Mus­lim man striv­ing for as­sim­i­la­tion, an Amer­i­can Cau­casian woman ro­man­ti­cally at­tached to Is­lam, an African-Amer­i­can woman lawyer who pro­claims that she val­ues or­der above jus­tice, and a white male Jewish aes­thete who turns out to be quite closed-minded — all en­cir­cling the cen­tral ques­tion (also rep­re­sented by Amir’s nephew), which is how Is­lam fits into the ma­trix of Western so­ci­ety.

The ac­tors bring req­ui­site skill to their por­tray­als of ob­vi­ously com­pli­cated parts, and all of them al­low their char­ac­ters to leave the au­di­ence hang­ing in vac­il­la­tion. The play is per­haps some­thing of a Rorschach test for view­ers, who may choose to make an un­easy peace with it by seiz­ing at one strand or another, since the con­flict over­all seems ir­rec­on­cil­able. Easy philo­soph­i­cal view­points are knocked off their base. The pub­lished play in­cludes an in­ter­view in which Akhtar says: “There’ve been two kinds of re­ac­tions. One is peo­ple com­ing up to me to ac­knowl­edge that they’ve had a mean­ing­ful and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. They of­ten share that in a phys­i­cal way, a fa­cial way, and there isn’t too much com­men­tary. And then there’s another re­ac­tion, hav­ing to do with the trou­ble the play seems to re­lease into the au­di­ence, the folks who come up to me and ask point-blank what it is I’m try­ing to say. Be­cause the play has not re­solved that for them.”

At­ten­dees at Fu­sion’s pro­duc­tion must have fallen into both of those camps, and it is to the com­pany’s credit that most of them are prob­a­bly still puz­zling their way to in­con­clu­sive ir­res­o­lu­tions. Dis­graced goes to the nub of an is­sue the world is wrestling with none too suc­cess­fully, and the more we all think about it, the bet­ter. Af­ter writ­ing Dis­graced in 2012, Akhtar hardly took a break be­fore forg­ing ahead with two fur­ther plays, The In­vis­i­ble Hand (2012) and The

Who & the What (2014), and in the midst of the swirl he also pro­duced a novel, Amer­i­can Dervish. Each tack­les the ques­tion of Mus­lim cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion from a dif­fer­ent an­gle. The Who & the What in­volves gen­er­a­tional con­flicts and gen­der pol­i­tics within an Arab-Amer­i­can fam­ily, but it is lov­ingly cast as a do­mes­tic com­edy. It might serve as a salve fol­low­ing the ex­plo­sive con­fronta­tions of Dis­graced, and yet it would keep the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing. What say you, Fu­sion? — James M. Keller

John San Ni­co­las and Celia Schaefer

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