Amir would seem to have everything — a high-paying job at a prestigious New York law firm, a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side, and a talented spouse whose career as an artist is beginning to take off. But the route to his perch atop the gilded ladder of Manhattan success has come at a price. Born in Pakistan and raised a Muslim, Amir has never completely reconciled his background with his present identity. It’s one or the other, and when, in the course of what was intended to be an intimate dinner party with another couple, Amir’s separate worlds collide, things fall apart, and quickly.
For Ivy Vahanian, who will direct and play Amir’s wife Emily in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced this weekend at Center Stage Theater, the opportunity to bring this Pulitzer Prize–winning play to Santa Barbara is the culmination of more than a year’s intensive involvement with the material. Cast as Emily in the Washington, D.C., production at Arena Stage by director Timothy Douglas, she followed that well-received run of more than 50 performances by touring with the play in China. Now she’s getting a chance to show her friends and neighbors here why she believes Disgraced is “the cleanest, leanest, most efficient play I’ve ever done.”
Vahanian is not the only one who feels this way about the show, which New York Times critic Christopher Isherwood praised for the “stimulating” impact of its “cut-crystal dialogue.” The setup may be familiar — two couples meeting for dinner in a haute-bourgeois home space — yet the conversation that ensues is anything but. Jory and Isaac, the other couple, are not only close friends; they’re also in business with Amir and Emily. Jory works alongside Amir at the law firm, and Isaac, a gallery owner, is organizing a show that will feature Emily’s art.
When an incident involving Amir’s nephew Abe and a local imam results in evidence of Amir’s loyalty to his Muslim roots appearing in the pages of the New York Times, the constraints placed on his assimilation by his identity become the subject of an increasingly raucous dinner-table debate. “It lights a fire,” said Vahanian of the dialogue, noting that “alcohol is involved.” Spanning the years since September 11, 2001, in its experiential scope, and taking as its point of departure a thoroughly multicultural version of the New York elite (Jory is African American), Disgraced captures the zeitgeist of our politically polarized moment with ruthless force. As hidden motives and sexual undercurrents come to the surface, tempers flare and steps are taken that can’t be undone.
For Amir, all the modern conveniences of upper-class living can’t necessarily guarantee him the dignity and sense of purpose he craves, yet returning to his original faith has become impossible. He’s a man in need of a stable culture, and when he discovers that what’s he is seeking can’t be earned or bought, he explodes. With an all-Equity professional cast including Fajer Al-Kaisi, Ryan McCarthy, Rasool Jahan, Samip Raval, and Vahanian, this Producing Unit presentation promises to be one of the season’s most provocative evenings of theater.
Disgraced runs Thursday, September 28- Sunday, October 1, with evening performances Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo). Visit centerstagetheater.org or call (805) 963-0408.