My maternal grandma was a tough old Jewish lady from an eastern European shtetl, the name of which is incised now on a glass wall at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Of course, she got out during the rule of the czars. I liked her quite a bit. She shared her poker winnings with me when I was little, and we watched The Monkees together every Monday night. But her position on diversity left a lot to be desired. She was particularly, shall we say, unfriendly to the notion of intermarriage. “Go to sleep with a young shiksa,” she warned, “wake up with an old goy.” And: “Marry a shiksa and one morning she’ll wake up and look at you and all she’ll know to say is ‘dirty Jew.'”
The primal, tribal coarseness of this stuff sort of takes your breath away, doesn’t it? I hate to think I let my grandma’s ugly opinions influence me, but then it’s true that I wrecked a couple of very nice relationships with gentile women before marrying in the faith.
All of which is to say that I have no problem identifying with Amir, the central character in Ayad Akhtar‘s Disgraced, now getting its world premiere in a sharp if not yet fully realized production directed by Kimberly Senior for American Theater Company. The strenuously assimilated son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Amir is what else but a corporate lawyer (mergers and acquisitions) married to pink-skinned, blond Emily, who makes art for a living but looks like she’d be perfectly at home serving pie at a Grange dinner. They live together in a tastefully bland New York apartment where they entertain their favorite couple, Jewish Isaac and black Jory. “Islam,” Amir tells his guests one evening, “is a backward way of thinking and being,” and the Koran, a “hate-mail letter to humanity”—bigoted, sexist, violent, and, yes, tribal in a coarse, primal way that he rejects.
Still, cut Amir and does he not bleed just like his father and his father’s father before him? Akhtar subjects the poor guy to a Job-like series of personal and professional reversals that test his ability to hold on to his progressive mindset. Question is, will Amir’s cultivated, western persona collapse under the stress?
What makes that question interesting isn’t the danger of collapse itself so much as Amir’s awareness of what lies beneath the identity he’s created—and how the people around him respond to his awareness. He’s been to the world of purdah and jihad and clawed his way out, and now he’s like a recovered alcoholic, trying mightily to maintain. Jory seems to understand to some extent: as a self-made former inhabitant of what she glancingly refers to as the “ghetto,” she may recognize how much energy Amir has to expend just to preserve his adopted self. In any event, she sides with him every so often. But Emily and Isaac are classic enablers. The ways in which they manipulate Amir while excusing themselves is the real disgrace of Disgraced.
Or it could be, anyway. At 75 minutes, Disgraced feels stick-figureish at times—sketchy, formulaic, and incomplete. Suggestive rather than declarative, like something that had to be hurried to the stage before it was entirely thought through. I hope that if Akhtar comes back to it he’ll fill out Emily in particular. She gets something of a free pass in her current form, even though she clearly suffers. The extent to which she appropriates and exploits Amir’s exoticism is implied but never really confronted and explored, and the same goes for her slick deployment of western-style moral relativism when the occasion demands. There’s a much more complex Emily yet to be created.
(On the other hand, I’ve been reading Akhtar’s newly published novel, American Dervish, and finding some of the women in it just as fragmentary, so the problem may not be solved by another draft.)
Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that Lee Stark comes across a little vaguely as Emily. Benim Foster’s Isaac, too, is intriguing but unfocused and ultimately none too believable. Alana Arenas is so often cast as unsophisticated young women that it’s a pleasure to see her as Jory, the tactically subtle New York professional, even though that character’s cryptically drawn, too. Usman Ally’s Amir, however, is vivid. I’ve seen Ally be tense in lots of different contexts, and he seems to be a master of the emotion. Inasmuch as Amir is defined by tension, the role is made for him.