Certain topics make for “unsavory” dinner party chatter: religion, politics, adultery, and terrorism chief among them. Playwright Ayad Akhtar embraces these themes in his Pulitzer Prize–winning play Disgraced, onstage at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through February 26.
This controversial drama is a welcome deviation for the Maltz, which excels at producing high-energy, feel-good musicals. With Disgraced, the theater proves it can challenge its audience, too. Director J. Barry Lewis successfully stages a compelling dissection of American mores in the new millennium. After every production, audience members can stick around for a reverse talkback, wherein the cast and crew ask them what they felt about the contentious conversation at the heart of Disgraced.
Set in a posh apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Disgraced takes place over nine months, from Summer 2011 to Spring 2012. In the first two scenes, we meet Amir (Fajer Kaisi), a Pakistani-born lawyer with a penchant for $600 shirts and a self-hating streak, and his artist wife, Emily (Vanessa Morosco). Emily has a soft spot for Amir’s nephew Abe (Eddie Morales), who has asked Amir for his help exonerating an imam accused of funding terrorism. Amir is reluctant as he no longer practices Islam and doesn’t want to be publically affiliated with the religion. But he acquiesces—for Emily—and finds his professional ambitions at risk as a result.
During this time, we also get to know Isaac (Joel Reuben Ganz), a Jewish art curator and husband of one of Amir’s coworkers. Isaac visits Emily to check out her work, which is heavily influenced by Islamic motifs, like mosque tile work. Isaac accuses Emily of cultural appropriation (“You’ve even got the brown husband,” he quips) but is impressed with her work, and the two quickly bond over their shared interests.
This is all a prelude to one explosive dinner party. It’s now fall, and Amir’s career is in shambles. But Emily’s is on the rise. Isaac has decided to include a few of her pieces in an upcoming show, and he and his wife, Jory (Chantal Jean-Pierre), are coming over to celebrate. Things do not go as planned—to say the least. Insults are served up while Emily’s pork tenderloin (an ironic main dish for many in attendance) goes uneaten. When the dust settles, two marriages are beyond repair and Amir is unrecognizable.
Disgraced demands bold yet nuanced performances—and the main quartet delivers. Though only given one scene to spread her wings, Chantal Jean-Pierre brings bravado to her characterization of Jory. She is strong but sensitive, courageous in her ambition yet careful not to offend Amir. And she sure can rock a jumpsuit. Joel Reuben Ganz is the Woody Allen to Jean-Pierre’s Annie Hall. As Isaac, Ganz brings an intellectual combativeness to the group. He freely presses Amir’s buttons until he finally pushes everyone over the edge.
Vanessa Morosco offers a tame take on Emily. A talented painter with an earnest interest in her husband’s culture, Emily is very smart but ignorant to her own naiveté. Morosco harnesses this trait, imbuing Emily with wide-eyed faith in her own worldview—no matter how myopic it might be. Totally believable in her portrayal, Morosco appears surprised at every problem that comes her way, even when they’re a result of Emily’s own actions.
Fajer Kaisi has played Amir before—and it shows. Writer Ayad Akhtar takes pains to give Amir dimension, and Kaisi revels in all of Amir’s idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and faults. For all his grit, Kaisi starts out immensely likeable, an immigrant with something to prove and a will to prove it. As he spirals into his meltdown, he does and says many things that evoke gasps. But it’s all so real. You may not agree with him, but you can understand where he’s coming from. His final actions are despicable, but if you consider his behavior within our current milieu then it’s easy to identify the roots of his insecurities.
In a time when our political and social climate is so contentious, plays like Disgraced seem more vital than ever. Ayard Akhtar trades fluff for fury, niceties for real talk. And the Maltz doesn’t shy away from these of-the-moment controversies. By tackling this material, the theater puts faith in its audience, asking them to join in on this journey into unchartered territory.