Thursday 24 September 2015

Disgraced offers up timely talking points

From the footlights :  Want a potboiler?  Then what, in New York City, could possibly be more pot-boiler-ish than a plot involving these : Couple #1 features a Pakistani-American lapsed-Muslim lawyer married to a WASP artist wife. Couple #2 finds a female African-American lawyer (same firm) married to a Jewish art curator. Over dinner they debate race politics and DNA and The Fates of History in the post-9/11 world. Visceral outcomes result. This is a Pulitzer Prize script in which countless character contrivances drive the action. Quibbles aside, the ACT production of Disgraced is a typically admirable & energetic effort that doubtless will find Vancouver's chattering classes abuzz. 

Scene off the catwalk :  Milwaukee-raised Ayad Akhtar's script won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. The title is a choice play on words, given its religious luggage. In Judaism, grace (salvation) is freely and universally granted by God : none can escape His reach. In Islam, by contrast, grace may be granted by Mohammed \ Allah but only when framed in the context of the believer's life. Their actions must be measured against the diktats of the Quran. Is grace, as well as God, dead? That is the question.

Amir Kaboor (Patrick Sabongui) is a first generation Pakistani-American hustle-bustle mergers-&-acquisitions lawyer in a Jewish firm. He desperately wants to be offered partnership. His wife Emily (Kyra Zygorsky) is a painter smitten by the very Islamic traditions her husband has renounced. She's trying to mimic on canvas a Rumi-esque romanticism about the faith. The curator she's hustling to do a show of her works is, ironically, Jewish too (Robert Moloney). He is married to Jory (Marci T. House), a black associate in the same firm as Amir. She also scrambles for the favour of partnership status from the firm's patriarchs.  

The plot-twist involves nephew Abe (Conor Wylie). His mosque imam is charged with incitement of his congregants. He cajoles and bullies them to assert what he claims is their their sacred moral superiority in today's secular world. Abe convinces Aunt Emily to have Amir give the imam unofficial legal counsel for his upcoming public mischief trial. Amir does so, but reluctantly, given he has renounced (repressed?) his Islamic roots. His presence at the imam's noisy, vituperative hearing is duly reported in the New York daily prints and of course his law firm principals are aghast.

Follow spot on the plot : Primary action of the play takes place when these two couples have Saturday dinner together at the Kapoor's sumptuous Upper East Side apartment. In short order the tensions peak as Amir and Isaac spar over the the rise of Islamic-related violence across the globe. Albeit an agnostic Muslim, Amir admits under the influence of several gulped scotches that he nevertheless felt a bit of pride at the terrorism of 9/11. That "his people" had made such a cacophonous and explosive international declaration of pride after so many centuries being one-down against the Jews and Christians of the First World gave him a wee thrill despite the horror of it all.

Meanwhile Emily and Isaac have found common ground on a couple of fronts : his show of her work might be seen as gratitude following a trip to London they each made to visit art houses...  Isaac and Amir trade increasingly sardonic, irreconcilable exchanges over Judaism and Islam. Emily chides Amir. The party implodes. Quick hit of domestic violence ensues. Then an exchange of letters from their domestic lawyers. A division of marriage chattels follows soon after by way of denouement to all the earlier histrionics.

Production values : Disgraced both as script and as performed by the cast is a sum of parts individually superior to the whole that results. Coincidence cannot be relied on to drive nearly every aspect of a work's plot and characterization. It will almost always come off as a contrivance writ too large for comfort. Obviously the Pulitzer panel disagreed.

Still, the socio-political issues Akhtar raises -- he who spent his youth near the suburbs I was fetched up in 70 years back -- such issues as these are tough to reconcile and rationalize easily in a North American 1st world context : Al Qaeda, ISIS, Syrian civil war and its refugees, homegrown terrorist acts, Israel's Middle East isolation & the Jews' always-threatened extinction, their Palestinian neighbours' exclusion in Jerusalem society, Hamas, &c. &c&c.

Most vigorous character performances on the night came from Mr. Moloney and Ms. House early during the fateful supper soiree particularly, though Mr. Sabongui's slurry stumbly scotch sequences were superb. Meanwhile Ted Roberts' set of parquet floors beneath sumptuous leather furniture captures richly indeed the New York zeitgeist for high-flying Gen X professionals on the make.

Who gonna like :  Nearly half the house on opening night jumped to their feet to clap and shout their huzzah's. Whether they were cheering the ironic futility of cultural / ethnic / religious tribalism 
-- blood almost always begets more blood in its ritual self-righteousness -- is beyond knowing. But in 90 minutes folks get a wee taste of what some of the world's current ethno-racial-religious struggles involve. Viewed up close and personal,  Disgraced just might open such doors of perception. 

Particulars :  Playwright Ayad Akhtar.  Performances at the Stanley Theatre ACT stage on South Granville through October 18th. Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission. Schedules vary daily. Ticket information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Artistic Team :  Director Janet Wright.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Sound & Projection Designer Candelario Andrade. Assistant Director Kevin Bennett.  Stage Manager Jan Hodgson.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Production Dramaturge Veronique West.

Performers : Marci T. House (Jory).  Robert Moloney (Isaac).  Patrick Sabongui (Amir).  Conor Wylie (Abe).  Kyra Zygorsky (Emily).


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