Theatre Review: ‘Disgraced’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

The cast of “Disgraced” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

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.

First Look: ‘Disgraced’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

When it comes to producing new works, Road Less Traveled Productions has no problem taking the gritty new words of contemporary playwrights, and putting them on the stage. These works are often time real life situations that audiences can relate to, about topics that are very hard to discuss, and that cause tension and uneasy feelings. This is exactly what you will find in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar, opening March 9 at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

“This show discusses exactly what Grandma told you not to talk about in mixed company, politics, religion, and race,” says John Hurley, who is directing this show, “this script is so fast and furious, it will really keep your interest.”

“Disgraced” tells the story of a dinner party, where the guests come from very different walks of life, including; the American-born, Muslim raised lawyer who works at a prestigious law firm in Manhattan and is up for a promotion; his white wife who is an artist; her Jewish art dealer, and an African American co-worker who was just granted a huge promotion. These characters take the audience on a rollercoaster ride of debate, and in the end, the audience must decide who is right.

“All five characters are intelligent,” says Hurley, “they are looking at a problem, giving their own angle on the situation, and they are all trying to remain friends.”

In social times where there seems to be lots of unrest in various societal issues, Hurley says that this is a play that America needs right now. “I love the play, and what I love about it is as you watch it, you find that there are no right answers,” says Hurley, “the characters dump a bunch of information onto your lap, and you are asked to form your own opinions. It’s a play that doesn’t preach.”

Scott Behrend, the executive/artistic director of Road Less Traveled, has really been spearheading the efforts to bring contemporary theatre to the Buffalo stage in recent years. “Scott brought this play to the board for approval, and there was a little back and forth over doing it,” says Hurley. “One of the major obstacles being casting. We truly lucked out with everyone we cast in this show.”

This Road Less Traveled Production stars Kristen Tripp Kelley, Matt Witten, Candace Whitfield, Afrim Gjonbalaj and Mohammad Farraj. “This cast has been an absolute joy to work with,” says Hurley.

What does a director hope his audience gets from a show that asks them to sit and watch a very uncomfortable situation take place? “Whatever you want to take away from it,” says Hurley, “this is not a play of answers. You will learn a lot about Islam, art, the law, and the show is not going to tell you what to think.”

“Disgraced” opens on March 9 and runs until March 31, 2018. It is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.