THEATER REVIEW

After a slow start, 'Disgraced' heats up Chester Theatre Company stage

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CHESTER — When first we see Amir Kapoor, the pivotal character in Ayad Akhtar's potent Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Disgraced" — which is being given a credible, if uneven, production at Chester Theatre Company — he is dressed in a stylish dark suit jacket, a crisp white shirt ... and boxers. He is posing for his artist wife, Emily, who is sitting at a nearby table in the living room/dining area of their comfortable Manhattan apartment, making a sketch of her husband based on a large reproduction of Velazquez' "Portrait of Juan de Pareja."

At 40, Amir (played at a steady, high-pitched intensity by J. Paul Nicholas) is a hard-working American-born lawyer whose family emigrated to the United States from Pakistan. After three years working in the public defender's office, Amir has migrated to a high-powered law firm — Leibowitz, Bernstein, Harris — where he specializes in acquisitions and mergers. He works hard, by his own account coming to the office long before the rest of the lawyers and staff show up; staying on long after they leave. His father, he says later in the play, came to America to make a better life for himself and his family. Amir has swallowed his pride, as well as his cultural and religious heritage and culture, in his bid to make good on that promise. He is positioning himself for a partnership at his firm. He has changed his last name from Abdullah to Kapoor and lied on his job application about his family's country of origin.

As hard as he tries to dissociate from his Muslim heritage, Amir keeps being pulled in, especially by his nephew, Hussein (resonantly played by Abuzar Farrukh), who has changed his name to Abe Jensen. Abe has become an advocate for a local Imam who has been in jail for four months pending an upcoming hearing on suspicion that money the Imam has been raising in his mosque is, in fact, earmarked for Islamic terrorists. Amir, under pressure from Abe and from Emily, has visited the Imam in jail and now he is weighing Abe's plea to lend support by attending the hearing, a decision Amir will come to regret when he is quoted in a New York Times story about the hearing that catches the attention of one of the law firm partners.

The stakes are equally high for Emily (Kim Stauffer), whose latest work is showing Islamic influences, enough for her to catch the attention of an important curator at the Whitney, a fortysomething man named Isaac (Jonathan Albert), who is considering whether to invite Emily to exhibit in a major show he is mounting at the prestigious New York art museum. Isaac's African-American wife, Jory (an impressive Christina Gordon), works in the same law firm as Amir but is considering a lucrative offer from Credit Suisse.

Everything comes to a head at a celebratory dinner at Emily and Amir's apartment, three months after the events in the play's first two scenes, in recognition of Emily being accepted into the show. It is clear from the outset that something is off with Amir, who is drinking more than he should as he tries to lift the roiling, grinding weight of what he characterizes as "a bad day at work." That bad day at work turns into a nightmare at home with consequences that will change everyone's lives.

Akhtar's writing is self-assured, thoughtful. His issues range across and deep within cultural heritage and identity; the value of names; the ways in which we all too readily make assumptions — many of them often false, as it turns out — based upon what we think we know. Akhtar is masterly at fastening political and social debate to intensely human behavior and dilemmas. Trust is shattered, like so much broken glass. Betrayal chokes the atmosphere. The arguments that rage are fashioned with vigorous passion and daring. Nothing is held back.

Director Kristen van Ginhoven's production moves in fits and starts through its first half. The subtleties and nuance of the play's early scenes are not manifest in Stauffer's near passivity and Nicholas' virtually one-dimensional high pitch — until the dinner and final scenes when his performance matures.

As Abe/Hussein, Farrukh delivers an engaging portrayal of a young man who could well be a poster boy for the cause of radicalizing young American Muslims.

Albert's Isaac is a cool, self-confident, at times smug, customer. Gordon's finely tuned Jory is a portrait of taste, wry humor, ambition and the skills to assert her identity, her wants and needs, and defend her territory when it comes under attack.

Van Ginhoven's production takes its time finding its footing and connection. But there is enough to carry through to that dinner scene and once it does, Akhtar takes full command. Look out.

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