A Pulitzer Prize winner comes to Chester

From left, J. Paul Nicholas, Kim Stauffer, Christina Gordon and Jonathan Albert rehearse a scene from Chester Theatre Company's production of Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize play, "Disgraced," opening Thursday at Town Hall Theatre.

CHESTER — A Pakistani American, a white woman, a Jew and an African-American woman are gathered at a dinner party in a New York Upper East Side apartment. Sounds like a set-up for a joke, right?

Instead, it's the setting of Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Disgraced," which is being produced by the Chester Theatre Company beginning Thursday. Writing in his Note to Directors in the script, Akhtar refers to his work as "an entertainment, something of a situation comedy."

Indeed, the early scenes, dramatizing the dinner conversation of the two couples, are laced with humor. The hosts are Amir (J. Paul Nicholas), a corporate lawyer who has rejected his Muslim heritage, and his wife Emily (Kim Stauffer), a white liberal artist who is hoping for a show of her Islamic-influenced paintings. The guests are Isaac (Jonathan Albert), a Jewish curator at the Whitney Museum, and Jory (Christina Gordon), an African-American lawyer in Amir's firm. At first glance, it seems that these smart, witty friends have so much in common that the dinner party is bound to be a huge success. Unfortunately, before long the play turns much darker.

According to the director, Kristen van Ginhoven (artistic director of WAM Theatre, who directed "I and You" at Chester last season), the playwright has intentionally given these characters specific identities that society associates with their race, gender or religion. Try as they might to overcome these labels, they will be judged by audience biases, based on often unconscious assumptions that may have nothing to do with reality. Akhtar asks us to look at the lens through which we see his characters and to understand the difference between how we identify "the other" versus who they really are as individuals.

Van Ginhoven says that in rehearsals, she has worked with the actors to discard stereotypes and to understand what previous circumstances led these characters to the place in which we find them. She says in an interview with The Eagle that she feels the responsibility of presenting a play of this complexity in today's times, when it is so easy to pigeonhole people who are different from us.

As part of her work, which she compares to peeling the layers of an onion, she has tried to identify the nuances in every line, a process greatly aided by her assistant director, Lea Russell-Self, and her dramaturg, Daniel Lombardo, whose research uncovered articles about the play and interviews with the playwright. Van Ginhoven is guided in this process by imagining what she and the cast need to do in order to feel proud of this production in front of a possible audience of Muslims, or Jews, African-Americans or women.

But the playwright doesn't make it easy. Ahktar's characters are all flawed, all to blame for the disintegration of the dinner party and their friendship. This Muslim playwright dares to create, as the centerpiece of his play, a Muslim character whose actions may engender anti-Muslim feelings, particularly on the part of a post 9/11 audience. For this reason, there are actors of color as well as directors who have refused to have anything to do with the play. In Chester's production the actor Abuzar Farrukh, a Pakistani immigrant himself cast as Abe, the nephew of Amir, has struggled to embody his character because of his own personal experiences. Yet, despite the difficulties accompanying his emotional identification with Abe, he says he dreams of someday presenting "Disgraced" in Pakistan.

Mounting a play with a cast of this size on the small Chester stage presents additional challenges. Van Ginhoven thanks her scenic designer, Juliana von Haubrich, for her creativity in building an environment in which the actors can work comfortably but also meets the demands of the set as well as the artwork.

Throughout the show's run through July 15, it will be up to the audience to leave their prejudices at the door and be ready to engage wholeheartedly with each of these characters with tolerance and even acceptance.