Fresh Air, Part Two – Disgraced

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This is the second of a two-part blog post.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about The Inconvenience’s Hit the Wall.  The other noteworthy new work I saw in the early weeks of 2012 was American Theater Company’s world premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which began in late January but which has mercifully been extended into early March. Disgraced is a little bit more polished, somewhat more thoughtfully structured, and comes off more re-written (which is a good thing to say about a play in this case) than Hit the Wall, but it isn’t any less powerful, and arguably, is probably more topical and resonant.  The central character is a first-generation Pakistani-American, Amir (an extraordinary Usman Ally), who has thoroughly embraced the American Dream: the fast-track in his corporate law firm, an interior-decorated Manhattan apartment, a non-Pakistani artist-wife (a good Lee Stark in an underwritten role), a worldview that’s skeptical, challenging, and to a certain extent, shunning of his Muslim background and upbringing.  It’s a truly provocative piece of theater- Akhtar palpably and sometimes brutally tackles large-scale themes around cultural identity and assimilation. 

Akhtar also doesn’t shy away from having the audience confront, maybe a little painfully, its perspectives on topics such as whether there is such as thing as a more “desirable” minority (Amir’s chief rival for Partner in his law firm is his friend, an African-American lawyer played by the always-terrific Alana Arenas, who lifted herself out of poverty).  Or the inherent prejudices against each other in both sides of the Jewish-Islam debate, which deters finding a middleground solution (as realized in a searingly acute scene when Amir argues with his friend’s husband, who is Jewish, played with fervor by Benim Foster).  It’s pretty impressive writing.  Sometimes though, Akhtar’s writing transitions from being impressive to, in my view, trying to impress, with some of the scenes (especially the dinner table one around the violent content of the Quran) coming off as too much of a staged he-said, she-said discourse, sort of like what you’d see in a Presidential candidate primary debate, or a graduate seminar in cultural anthropology at Harvard.  The writing can veer into the too structured and argumentative, versus coming out, smoothly, intrinsically, from the motivations and points-of-view of the characters. I also feel that Stark’s bleeding-heart liberal wife, Emily, is a little too one-dimensional for me (and is a little creepy and fetishizing about Islamic culture), and suffers from the more full-blooded characterizations (including Amir’s nephew Hussein, torn between assimilation and authenticity to his roots, played with thoughtfulness by Behzad Dabu).

But these are little nitpicks for what is, overall, one of the best scripts I’ve seen in the past several months.  Director Kimberly Senior’s fast-paced direction is excellent, but the show is Usman Ally’s all the way.  I’ve been such a big admirer of Ally (and especially of his performance in Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity), and he is ferocious and extremely warm-blooded as Amir, without losing the nuanced notes (I love the way he interacts with Hussein, big-brother tender yet standoffish, not only because his nephew is a reminder of the culture he has successfully stored away, but also because he represents the courage in self and identity that he cannot bring himself to evoke).  Ally is riveting, and delivers the best performance of Chicago theater 2012 so far.

See Disgraced at American Theater Company,  1909 W. Byron St., until March 11.

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