Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's review of Revolving Stage and Arty's review of Pinocchio

Bhavesh Patel, Kevin Isola and Caroline Kaplan
Photo by Dan Norman
Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar's stirring play having its Minnesota premiere at the Guthrie, is reportedly the most produced play across the United States this year. That is little surprise, given that it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama and was nominated for the 2015 Tony Award for best play. Moreover, it is one of the timeliest plays seen on Broadway in some time, striking a national nerve on such hot-button issues as race relations, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and cultural identity. Add to that Marcela Lorca's steady, edge of your seat direction, a quintet of blazing performances, and a production beautifully rendered by set, costume and lighting designers, and Disgraced is a "drop everything and get your tickets now" occasion.

While Disgraced runs on the McGuire Proscenium Stage, on the other side of the Guthrie, Joseph Haj's sharply realized production of another Pulitzer Prize winner, South Pacific, continues on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. These two plays make interesting bookends marking changes in America's public view of race. Written in 1949, South Pacific takes as its starting place then-common assumptions about the boundaries between people of different races, then, in a nod to tolerance, suggests that those boundaries are illusory and that we can transcend them to embrace one another simply as fellow humans. Disgraced, which premiered in 2012, takes notions of a post-racial society in which we are agents of our own will and values, free of dictates borne of racial or cultural identities, only to have that premise implode with devastating results, sending a chilling message that we deny our race and culture at our own peril.

Disgraced is set in a chic, airy Upper East Side Manhattan apartment with a skyline view (designed by James Youmans), the home of rising star corporate attorney Amir and his aspiring artist wife Emily. Amir's Pakistani immigrant parents raised him as a Muslim, but Amir speaks with scorn of Islam and all religion, living a secular life. Being leery of prejudice his Islamic heritage might provoke, Amir intentionally avoids the subject. This proves to be a challenge, as Emily is enamored of the design motifs in Islamic art, and views Islam as one of the world's great faith traditions unfairly stigmatized by the west. It is upon Emily's pleading that Amir, against his better judgement, meets with an iman accused of funneling funds from his mosque to a terrorist organization. Emily is sure that Amir is being paranoid in his fears that providing legal counsel for the iman could bring him unwelcome attention. As the play unfolds in a rapid-paced ninety minutes, the results of this meeting appear before our eyes, gathering momentum that threatens to destroy lives.

Lightning strikes this gathering storm at a dinner party Amir and Emily host for Amir's colleague Jory, who is African-American, and Jory's husband Isaac, a Jewish art dealer interested in Emily's work. With liquor flowing freely—especially down Amir's gullet—truths not meant to be told are revealed, particularly about the place of race and religion not only in their daily lives, but in their DNA, in their bones. A fifth character who affects Amir's transformation is his nephew Abe (an English name he chose to replace his given Arabic name), who first comes to appeal to his uncle to meet with the beleaguered iman, and later to seek help when he finds himself caught up in and FBI interrogation.

Amir is difficult to like or admire—by turns he is arrogant, flippant, deceptive, and self-loathing. But we still are drawn to the arc of his rise and fall, and feel the pain in his heart as he wrestles with an unwanted inheritance and a world that judges harshly. This is keenly realized by the confluence of Ayad Akhtar's compelling text, Marcela Lorca's humane direction, and Bhavesh Pati's fully committed performance as Amir. Pati's depiction of the Amir's melt-down, going from an over-inflated balloon to a wild ricochet ride when the air is all at once let out, is an amazing feat of acting.

The rest of the cast each bring a similar ring of truth to their performances. As Emily, Caroline Kaplan creates the image of an innocent enthusiast for fairness, kindness and inclusiveness—along with Islamic art and culture—that is painfully undone by a collision with harsh truths. Kevin Isola is urbane, smart, and cynical as Isaac, a man who could be likable, but not trustworthy, and Austene Van creates a rock-solid portrait of Jory, demonstrating a self-confidence and insistence on truth that have brought her success as an African-American woman in a world dominated by white men. As Amir's nephew Abe, Adit Dileep conveys the pain of fractured idealism.

Disgraced includes some very specific references that may make the play feel dated a decade from now, such as Michelle Bachman and banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery, but these same references make the writing feel very real, a window into the world at this point in history. The dialogue includes a number of offensive words and phrases related to specific religious, cultural, and racial identities. They are not easy to hear, but there is truth in having these characters utter them. Through the windows that make up the rear wall of Amir and Emily's apartment, cast members walk silently between scenes, sometimes in slow motion, barely missing each other in passing, as if the risk of unwanted collisions—physical, emotional and cultural—is ever-present whenever we leave our house.

Ana Kuzmanic has designed costumes that illustrate the lifestyle and aspirations of each character. It is telling that at the dinner party, Emily's dress has ornate geometric patterns, reflecting Islamic design motifs, while Jory wears a striking black and white sleeveless dress that projects decisiveness. Rui Rita's lighting design heightens the focus and tension of the unfolding drama. Sophisticated jazz, composed by Sanford Moore, suggests a sense of urban detachment during transitions.

Disgraced is a play that makes a powerful impact, raising important questions, not suggesting easy answers. Are we free to choose to dismiss our cultural or racial heritage? If so, is this a good thing? Are we held captive by the traditions and prejudices that are part of that heritage? Can we be "true" to ourselves while also insulating ourselves from the judgements others make of that truth? What psychic price are we willing to pay to "fit in"? The play's haunting final image suggests ways these questions have unspooled for Amir, with no clear path for him to regain the happiness borne of his carefully controlled relationship with the world.

See Disgraced for the intelligence of its script, the outstanding performances, direction and design, and mort of all for the important ways in which it may leave you feeling disquieted.

Disgraced continues through August 28, 2016, at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $34.00 - $64.00. Student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats may be available 30 minutes before performance, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to

Writer: Ayad Akhtar; Director: Marcela Lorca; Scenic Design: James Youmans; Costume Design: Ana Kuzmanic; Lighting Design: Rui Rita; Sound Design: Scott W. Edwards; Composer: Sanford Moore; Voice and Text Coach: Elisa Carlson; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Fight Director: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, LTD; Assistant Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Director: Sun Mee Chomet; Design Assistants: Alice Fredrickson (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting) and Reid Rejsa (sound associate).

Cast: Adit Dileep (Abe), Kevin Isola (Isaac), Caroline Kaplan (Emily), Bhavesh Patel (Amir), Austene Van (Jory).

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