Disgraced: are we as tolerant and progressive as we think? A review

Raoul Bhaneja, Karen Glave MIchael Rubenfeld, Birgitte Solem, in Hope and Hell Theatre's production of Disgraced, at the Citadel. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Raoul Bhaneja, Karen Glave MIchael Rubenfeld, Birgitte Solem, in Hope and Hell Theatre’s production of Disgraced, at the Citadel. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

It’s a particularly unnerving week to see a play as, well, nervy as Disgraced. The news has seen to that.

The snags in the social fabric are unravelling at a horrifying rate. Islamophobia isn’t even bothering to cover its tracks. And here, before our very eyes — thanks to Toronto’s Hope and Hell Theatre and the tough provocations of Ayad Ahktar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner — is a classic joke set-up: so… a Muslim and a WASP, a Jew and an African-American sit down to dinner. The main course is pork tenderloin, but that’s not the punch line.

Witty smart-people banter about sports teams, work, art ensues — temporarily. You hear the line “irony is over-rated.” We’re at one of those stage dinner parties designed to give you indigestion. Or make you reach for the expensive scotch the way the characters do.

Somehow, incendiary topics like religion, fundamentalism, politics, terrorism, race, ethnic and cultural identity, Islamophobia vs “Islamo-fascism” — the subjects your mom and dad forbade over dinner — insinuate their way into the conversation, one dangerous spark at a time. Robert Ross Parker’s tense, dynamic, production escalates into fire in a nerve-wracking way.

It’s a compelling group portrait: smart, successful, liberal Manhattanites who discover, to their dismay, something about the thin cloth from which their progressive “post-ethnic” self-images are cut. It won’t keep you warm in the winter of anyone’s discontent; at moments of high stress, in fact, it’s see-through.

Raoul Bhaneja in Disgraced. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Raoul Bhaneja in Disgraced. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

At the centre is Amir (the superb Raoul Bhaneja), a go-for-the-gusto corporate lawyer of Pakistani-Muslim heritage he’s careful to fudge, attached to a Jewish firm. Amir hasn’t just slid away from his Muslim background, he’s scathing about rejecting it. Islam is “a backward way of thinking and being. The Qur’an is “one long hate mail letter to humanity.”

His blonde and beautiful WASP wife Emily (Birgitte Solem) is an artist, an up-and-comer who’s making her mark adopting Islamic patterns into her work. When she talks about the “beauty and wisdom in the Islamic tradition,” Amir rolls his eyes.   

The guests at their dinner party are Isaac (Michael Rubenfeld), a curator at the Whitney interested in Emily’s paintings, and his lawyer wife Jory (Karen Glave), one of Amir’s legal colleagues at the firm. Isaac is Jewish, of the secular stripe; Jory is African-American, and a conservative. 

The fifth character is Amir’s young nephew Abe (Gabe Grey), who’s changed his name from Hussein to fit himself more comfortably into his new country. And his marginalizing treatment by an Islamophobic culture will result in a name-change back again later in the play, a hint of the story that continues to unfold in our world. He exits, adamantine. A radical is being born.

Abe has arrived pre-dinner to plead with his uncle to defend an Imam, unjustly detained. And it’s one of the cruel ironies of the play that it’s Amir’s intervention in a just cause, reluctant and grudging though it is, that will contribute materially to his downfall.

Bhaneja’s Amir is a dimensional, convincing creation, a man who’s forcibly re-wired his own identity into the high-powered corporate world, and remains on a short fuse. It’s a performance that recognizes the wear and tear on the human psyche of detaching yourself from your roots and attempting to re-invent yourself beyond ethnicity. Amir is tense, insecure, alert to nuance, ever-vigilante for signs of being found out, straining to hear the sounds of being found out.

And the terrible discovery Amir makes about himself, that he isn’t free of his heritage, is conveyed by Bhaneja in an outburst about 9-11 that startles all of us, including him, and signals his doom. It’s a test case in outrage for the performance and the production. And both emerge victorious.

The other performances are strikingly good, too. As the wry, affable art curator Isaac, Amir’s chief and worthy sparring partner, Rubenfeld captures, and easily, a certain jokey comic cadence and rhythm that make the character’s declension into fury even more dramatic.

Salem and Glave have less to work with. But both expertly convey the contradictions and accommodations built into their characters — Solem as the artist whose pro-Islamic creative creed is somewhat compromised by careerist upward mobility; Glave as the black lawyer who favours Order over Justice and must “explain” that in half a sentence.

At a fleet 90 minutes on an anonymously affluent-looking set by Sue LePage, Disgraced feels multi-faceted — possibly over-crammed with an adultery angle, but bristly from all sides. It addresses the tensions of the immigrant experience, of being a minority in the multi-cultural universe we tout. It’s an anti-complacency play; it attacks our liberal sense of ourselves as above the fray.

And questions abound. You find yourself wondering if the great cultural fractures are in the end impossible to heal. And if so, are they best concealed by splints, or will push always come to shove at the end of the day?  Is repression of our true “ethnic” selves desirable, even if it strains at the seams? Everything about this is discussable. 

You won’t want to miss a play that keeps you wondering about your own point of view.

REVIEW

Disgraced

Theatre: Hope and Hell at the Citadel, first produced by David Mirvish

Written by: Ayad Akhtar

Directed by: Robert Ross Parker

Starring: Raoul Bhaneja, Birgitte Solem, Karen Glave, Michael Rubenfeld, Gabe Grey

Running: through Feb. 12

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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