'Disgraced' is a high-wire performance on race and religion

Race, religion, and a whole lot of whiskey

Race, religion, and a whole lot of whiskey

Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is now playing on the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, a space that was built for plays just like this.

In classic tradition, Akhtar brings a set of characters together in a comfortable domestic setting, uncorks a bottle of whiskey, and lets ’em all have at it. What’s novel is that these aren’t WASPs arguing over who Mother loved best. They’re two interracial couples dealing with questions of identity and faith.

At the center is Amir (Bhavesh Patel), a successful attorney whose parents were born in what is now Pakistan. He’s married to Emily (Caroline Kaplan), a white artist who’s fascinated with the Muslim faith her husband has rejected. Her Islam-inspired work is catching attention from Isaac (Kevin Isola), a high-powered curator whose wife, Jory (Austene Van), is a lawyer at Amir’s firm. Amir’s nephew Abe (Adit Dileep) is a fifth character, struggling with the challenges of being a young Muslim immigrant in a suspicious society.

The play is set in the lavish condo Amir and Emily share, realized in high style by set designer James Youmans. Director Marcela Lorca stages the play as a series of interactions — some with extended dialogue, others briefly glimpsed through the condo’s windows as Sanford Moore’s jazzy, ominous score plays between scenes. At the climax, the two couples convene for a dinner that begins as a celebration and ends in explosive conflict.

Patel gives a high-wire performance as Amir, a man channeling deep anger into bonhomie so intense it’s frightening. Amir’s combination of intelligence, charisma, and pain makes for a fascinating character, and Patel is absolutely magnetic.

As Isaac, Isola seems to be channeling some of Amir’s big personality, and it feels off. A quieter performance would have drawn a more potent contrast.

Bhavesh Patel (Amir), Caroline Kaplan (Emily), and Adit Dileep (Abe)

Bhavesh Patel (Amir), Caroline Kaplan (Emily), and Adit Dileep (Abe)

As forceful as Disgraced is in its treatment of race and religion, Akhtar is less nuanced in his treatment of gender; both female characters are underdeveloped.

Emily has a lot of stage time, but she spends most of it talking about ideas instead of people, and it feels all too easy to accept Isaac’s argument that Amir “doesn’t really know” his wife.

Jory, an African-American woman, feels placed in the story for the sake of convenience rather than as a fully fledged character. Van inhabits her so confidently that we’re left longing to know more about her.

Despite the structural shortcomings of the show, there’s no question that Akhtar has hit a vein with his portrait of Amir — who’s the subject of a literal portrait painted by his wife, a painting praised by Isaac as a proud picture of a man whose success in our society is conditional because of the color of his skin.

Conditional for the viewer, Isaac rushes to clarify. That’s something Amir doesn’t need to be told.

Guthrie Theater McGuire Proscenium Stage
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through August 28; 612-377-2224