Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Disgraced: A Relevant and Riveting Production
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's reviews of The Children's Hour, Shipwrecked! An Entertainment and Metamorphoses


Pej Vahdat and Ben Graney
Philadelphia Theatre Company opens its 2015-2016 season with Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced. Set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the play explores what happens to five New Yorkers who are forced to confront the biases, resentments, and fears that subconsciously color their perception. The thought-provoking and provocative drama addresses issues of institutional racism, Islamaphobia, cultural appropriation, and religious identity in an honest and meaningful way. Akhtar confronts these complex subjects head on, but the work is rarely didactic or heavy handed.

The action centers around Amir (Pej Vahdat), a successful Pakistani-American lawyer whose star is on the rise at his prestigious Manhattan firm. (Vahdat's tirade about contract editing was so good it gave me flashbacks to my days as a young corporate lawyer in New York.) Amir seeks to distance himself from the Muslim identity he was brought up with, consciously rejecting the religious ideology of Islam and taking steps to hide his background from others. Monette Magrath plays Emily, Amir's idealistic wife and an artist. Emily's paintings are inspired by Islamic art and architecture, which she insists are undervalued in a Euro-centric art community. This is just one of many simmering conflicts that will boil over as Amir's story progresses. Emily and Amir's nephew Abe (Anthony Adair) convince him to offer assistance to a religious leader they feel is being unjustly prosecuted. When Amir's involvement with the imam is mentioned in the New York Times his future at the firm looks bleak. Done in by the cultural affiliation he tried to escape for so long, the edges of Amir's perfect world begin to fray.

The play really kicks into high gear when Jory (Aimé Donna Kelly), another lawyer at Amir's firm, and her husband Isaac (Ben Graney), a curator at the Whitney, come over for a dinner to celebrate Emily's participation in his latest exhibit. Director Mary B. Robinson's production keeps the audience on the edge of its seats as the dinner conversation veers from a merely awkward conversation about the meaning of the Quran into outright confrontation over the rise of Islamic terrorism and the impact of the 9/11 attacks. The raw and brutally honest discussion of race, religion, and identity turns personal and then violent until no one is left unscathed.

Kelly gives an excellent performance as Jory, convincingly balancing her history as Amir's friend and ally (the pair has great chemistry and it is easy to imagine their shared struggles coming up as minority members of a largely Jewish New York law firm) against her recent success, which places them at odds. Graney is memorable, playing the intellectual but somewhat naive Isaac with a compelling mix of humor and authenticity. The most interesting moments are those that challenge the idea of a shared minority experience. Amir is Pakistani, Jory is an African-American woman, and Graney is Jewish, but they struggle to understand each other as much as they struggle for acceptance and success in the larger world.

Amir's most serious struggles are internal. A battle rages between his intellectual facade and the long suppressed emotion within. Vahdat brings the struggle to life and gives the audience a unique opportunity to see exactly how that conflict can change a man and bring him to his knees. It is not always comfortable to watch, but the reward is an evening of taut thrilling drama with enough extraordinary insight to keep you thinking for many days to come.

Disgraced runs Tuesdays through Sundays until November 8, 2015. Tickets starting at $15 are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420 or visiting PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.

Cast:
Anthony Adair - Abe
Ben Graney - Isaac
Aimé Donna Kelly - Jory
Monette Magrath - Emily
Pej Vahdat - Amir

Designers
Set Designer —Jason Simms
Costume Designer —Mark Mariani
Lighting Designer —Thom Weaver
Sound Designer —Christopher M. Colucci


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Rebecca Rendell


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