Saturday, February 11, 2012

A PROBLEM PLAY FOR TODAY -- 'Disgraced' at American Theater Company

The Attacks on September 11th irrevocably impacted drama and all art in the United States forever. With a culture shock of such devastatingly enormous magnitude, the changes were inevitable, but it was the rapidity of those changes that was truly jarring. The luscious excesses and childlike euphoria of the nineties were all shattered within a single hour, and the United States, once again, became a domestic battlefield of ideas and colors. I always think of Batman.

Until 1997's Batman and Robin, the Batman series, in the eighties and nineties, had cultivated a corrupted theme park exterior, firmly rooting it in a creepy world of comic book extravagance. But when Christopher Nolan rebooted the series in 2005, Batman was revisited as rogue, dangerous freelance policeman, thwarting terrorists in a recognizably Chicagoan Gotham. That is a subtle example of American art’s most recent loss of innocence, but more and more plays are beginning to tackle the subject head on – some much more successfully than others.

At American Theater Company, Ayad Akhtar’s new play, Disgraced, which recently opened, earnestly attempts to capture America's warring living rooms, but struggles so effortfully to provoke controversy that it ultimately says nothing.

Akhtar’s message is initially compelling, yes. The character at the play’s center is Amir (a rushed, and too emotion-reliant Usman Ally), a Muslim Pakistani man who has understandably complicated questions about his identity as a Muslim and an American. His doubts, prejudices, and paranoia overwhelm his decision making, to the detriment of his work and family life. The fate of his homeland has, for fifty years, been at the will of Empresses and Parliamentarians, and, as a result, he has a deep cauldron of bubbling resentment. But his countless booming politics-meets-theology tirades, let loose by his uncontrollable temper, jump from topic to topic like a high schooler’s essay – so when he finally lands on his thesis, you wonder how he could have possibly arrived there.

Ninety minutes simply gives neither Amir nor the playwright any time to formulate an argument that is even remotely cohesive. Perhaps the playwright would rather the audience not be allowed the privilege of thoughtful consideration and analysis, or perhaps ninety minutes is the optimal length for a New York transfer. Either way, what is onstage is messy and unmoving.
Purely as a piece of drama, Disgraced is amateurish in its construction and its delivery. An unassuming dinner between two couples gone awry provides the base coat for the piece; a situation so well worn in contemporary drama, that each new play in this style regularly spends more time differentiating itself from its predecessors than finding its own unique identity. If you've ever been in high school, you know these two feats are mutually exclusive.

The text itself is clogged with similar contrivances. The dialogue is cluttered with run of the mill workplace chatter presented through the biased pen of an artist. The choral blend of "you got partner?" "you didn't get partner?" "The firm..." "The inquiry... "the account..." fails to harmonize and resonates a pitch of authorial contempt. Within these discussions, the issue of workplace discrimination is explored in a manner that is neither enticing nor eye-opening.

The sole strength of Disgraced is, strangely enough, its frustrating indecisiveness. For a fleeting moment, before your proper sense kicks in, you might actually be convinced that every character in this play completely deserves what they ultimately get. These characters come to some saddening ends to be sure, but no one who is prominently featured in the play can claim innocence. To be so torn by the ugly fates of each of the characters is a smart, introspective, and well executed device. I said prominently featured because Hussein, the nephew of Amir (an extremely promising and engaging Behzad Dabu) is only ever an unfortunate victim of the clashing of everyone around him. His story is the most probing and well-realized of the play, but it is buried by the showy speeches and lame attempts at symbolism surrounding it.

Set alongside the ranting and raving are short, punchy deviations into infidelity and domestic violence. In fact, these devices combine forces to create the loud climax of the play, but they have such little relation to the plot. Domestic violence as a result of infidelity (infidelity introduced in the final twenty minutes, I might add) isn't much of a stretch in any situation. Perhaps the playwright is implying a deep-seated hatred of women by Islamic men as a result of western intervention. If so, he desperately needs to elaborate.

Director Kimberly Senior has staged the production with welcome surprise and fluidity. Scenes on couches and at dinner tables were uncharacteristically rich in visual appeal, accentuated by Jack Magwaw's living room set, which fit quite seamlessly into American Theater Company's thrust space. The transitions are, however, occasionally a problem, with the change between the penultimate scene and the final scene sticking out like Koolaid on a table cloth. But in spite of the abbreviated nature of the text and the absence of logic in the piece's movement, Senior has found some necessary clarity.

In performance, Disgraced belongs to its women. Lee Stark as Emily, the artist wife of Amir, and Alana Arenas as Jory, wife of Isaac (Benim Foster) all at once shed their calm professional exoskeletons, revealing deeply tortured souls. As Amir's wife, Emily structurally plays second fiddle to her man, doing no service to the production. Jory has a few moments of Chekhovian emoting, but not nearly as many as she should. When these immensely capable actresses are shut out, the play takes on an overbearing air of chauvinism, which again, accomplishes nothing and brings no enlightened truth to the plight of Muslim Americans.

"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million," professes Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The final speech of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, in which the young Hussein condemns the west, echoes Shylock's sentiments towards Christians in such a bolded, underlined manner that I couldn't help but think that it must be a purposeful allusion. The Merchant of Venice today, post-World War II and Holocaust, is a problem play. Audiences see Judaism as Shylock's defining characteristic, and because of that, he can no longer be the comic villain he was intended.

Disgraced is a fine example of a contemporary problem play. Its mismatched tone, illogical character arcs, and confused message are all decidedly problematic, and without any seeming intent. I left the theatre with no increased understanding of any issue, no lingering empathy for any character, and worst of all, no questions. Akhtar's play leaves so few moments for breath that nary the actor nor the audience has the time to hear anything, if truly there is something to be heard.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Disgraced' plays at American Theater Co. through February 26th.