Friday, 26 August 2016

Disgraced, Aug 25, 2016 ****

Disgraced by Ayad Ahktar, Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until Oct 1, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Fri Aug 26, 2016 and later in print. KH
Hazem Shammas, Zindzi Okenyo, Mitchell Butel, Kat Stewart

Contemporary New York may be a melting pot of races, religions and classes but in Ayad Ahktar’s

Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Disgraced, that pot suffers some ugly cracks and leaks.

Amir (Hazem Shammas), a tough, corporate lawyer with a Jewish law firm, lives in a sleek, Upper East Side apartment with his artist wife, Emily (Kat Stewart), whose paintings appropriate the Moorish design style of Muslim North African.

Born in America of Pakistani parents, Amir identifies as American, changes his surname to Kapoor, an Indian name, and is critical of the religious and political values and practices of Islam to which his nephew, Hussein (Kane Felsinger), adheres.

When Amir’s law firm colleague, Jory (Zindzi Okenyo), an African-American, comes to dinner with her art dealer husband, Isaac (Mitchell Butel), the intelligent, witty but booze-fuelled conversation turns to religion, race and politics, secrets surface and things get ugly for everyone.

Ahktar depicts five middle-class people who argue capably about politics and sound as if they care about the world but who are all narcissists obsessed with their own views, lives and careers.

Ahktar makes no attempt to provide convenient answers to the fraught social issues that have plagued both his country and ours since September 11.

Polite, informed dinner conversation turns to animated political debate then degenerates into a verbal battleground as characters abandon discretion and revert to deep-rooted tribal attitudes and primitive fears.

The climax is shocking and unexpected, although Amir’s surprising admissions and subsequent actions seem unlikely and a little contrived and, at this climactic point, characters behave more like stereotypes.

Shammas is impressive and audacious as Amir, portraying him as a passionate husband and an ambitious lawyer whose bullyboy tactics in his corporate role match his steamroller attitude to dinner conversation and, we discover, to his marriage.

Stewart shifts between vulnerability, earnestness and feistiness as Emily, accentuating her naiveté about not only Islam and art but also about her own relationship with her husband.
 Hazem Shammas, Kat Stewart pic Jeff Busby
Butel plays Isaac as a smug, arrogant, arty smarty-pants but balances his annoying traits with wit and great comic delivery.

Akhtar has under-written the character of Jory, leaving Okenyo with little to do apart from contradict her husband or act as a foil for Amir and Isaac’s conflict, while Felsinger, as Abe, provides the combative argument of the politically engaged young Muslim.

Nadia Tass’s assured direction focuses on the inner turmoil and outward conflict of the characters, taking advantage of Akhtar’s bold and controversial dialogue that confronts the audience with the characters’ often offensive views and even more shocking actions.

Disgraced is a challenging and confrontational play that will leave you with plenty to debate in the car on the way home.

By Kate Herbert

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