They could be any accomplished, upscale couple living in Manhattan. He is a mergers and acquisitions attorney, she is an artist who finds her muse in Islamic imagery. He’s an American born Pakistani, raised in a Muslim household, she is porcelain skinned, auburn haired, attracted to opposites. But Amir and Emily’s story is an exquisite manipulation of identity: who they are, who they aspire to be, and to whom they are trying to turn from. This intense and very human drama is the heart of “Disgraced, “ the riveting Pulitzer Prize winning play by Ayad Akhtar making its Western New York premiere as the penultimate show in Road Less Traveled Production’s season.
. . .an amazing, calculated performance.
Afrim Gjonbalaj is Amir: in his $600 Charvet shirts “with ridiculous thread count,” silk tie and dark well-cut suit, he is the epitome of success…who changes his name in an attempt to hide his heritage from his law firm colleagues in our post-September 11 world. Kristen Tripp Kelley is his wife Emily, the artist with a penchant for dark-skinned men. Akhtar’s skillful writing slides these quick references about Amir’s and Emily’s family into storyline very early on. Listen for them and hold them: these quick mentions are at the heart of the emerging story, and help define the characters’ souls. In the opening scene, Emily is sketching her husband as he replicates a pose from a famous work of art, but perhaps this is not as innocuous as it seems.
Mohammed Farraj is Abe, Amir’s nephew, whose knock at the door is a request for his lawyer uncle’s help. Abe – who also changed his name – still follows his faith and he wants justice for a jailed Imam. It’s here where Amir’s worlds begin to collide in ways he can’t manage, nor wants to, it seems. Things begin to bubble up, like veiled references to Muslim heritage and opinions from his elders, like “white women have no self-respect,” as he still portends to brush off his past. Of Abe, Emily says, “His heart is in the right place. Is yours?” as she can’t understand Amir’s hesitation to visit the Imam. Fictional lives, like real lives, intersect in interesting ways: Emily’s art dealer Issac (Matt Witten) is married to Joury (Candice Whitfield) another attorney in Amir’s firm. When the two couples meet for dinner, ostensibly to celebrate Emily’s successful inclusion in a prestigious art show, elements of their distinct backgrounds are no longer repressed under the careful machinations that we create to define who we want to be. Things are said here – and happen here – that cross boundaries. It’s stunning to watch the storyline advance so quickly here and the characters evolve as words explode from the actors’ mouths.
This is an amazing, calculated performance. Road Less Traveled Productions took some chances here…and they were worth it. John Hurley’s direction brings intensity to an already strong script. Watch the careful scene changes: the opening and closing second of each scene is like a mini-still life. John Rickus echoes this in his lighting design: there’s one dimly lit moment where Amir removes a piece of Emily’s art from the wall: narrow vertical parallels of light fill the space, not unlike the shafts of light that fill the Manhattan skyline where the Twin Towers once stood. This is elegant. Lynne Koscielniak’s set design is a spare and suitable backdrop for the passionate, powerful script.
Gjonbalaj’s performance as Amir starts slow, almost stiff, but wow, as he develops his character, he grabs Akhtar’s writing and pulls raw and powerful impact into every word. As always, Kelley is luminous, herself a portrait of strength as the story simmers on, and illustrates the complexity in her marriage to Amir. Witten plays Issac with subtle passion and solid craft: his versatility as an actor (coming off Kavinoky Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!” and the solid but slimy “Glengarry Glen Ross” before that) is amazing this season. Whitfield as Joury is proud and determined, but charming in equal measure. Farraj as Abe was almost hard to hear on opening night: perhaps too soft spoken.
“Disgraced” is part modern 21st century “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with elements of Amy Waldman’s novel “The Submission” woven together. It’s a shattering reminder ,that while we can modify our façade, what’s in our hearts and souls create our passion, our conviction, and those take more than acquisitions to change.
Running Time: 90 Minutes with no intermission.
“Disgraced” runs until March 31, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.