Ayad Akhtar’s engrossing “Disgraced” opens with a loaded scene of ironic comedy and symbolic foreshadowing. Amir Kapoor (Adam El-Sharkawi) a Pakistani-born, American-raised, corporate acquisitions-and-mergers attorney poses for his elegant blonde artist wife, Emily (Jennifer Le Blanc). He wears an expensive suit sans trousers as she sketches him in the living room of their chic Manhattan penthouse. The two laugh and joke, showing obvious affection, attraction and respect. Those traits will dissipate rapidly over the remainder of the tense argumentative living room drama now at Capital Stage.
In the play, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, being an adult man of vaguely brownish color in the post 9/11 world has its challenges.
Emily’s making a study of Amir as an homage to the 1650 painting “Portrait of Juan de Pareja” by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. The subject, who was of Moorish descent, was a workshop assistant and slave, Amir dryly notes with a self-assured smirk. Emily prefers appreciating the painter’s technique and aesthetics which she says “has more nuance and complexity than his renditions of kings and queens.” The work hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nuances of appearance, context and reality take on more personal, charged aspects later in the play, and Emily’s portrait of Amir will provide a poignant coda.
Discussing an exchange with a waiter the night before, Amir displays bulletproof worldliness. “The guy’s a racist. So what?” Amir says nonchalantly reflecting his sense that while the incident is neither the first or the last, he can’t really be touched by it. He’s smart, rich and good enough at what he does that soon he’ll be named a partner at his prestigious firm. Amir knows precisely who he is. However, his cocky assurance will implode through a series of his own coldly honest revelations. The blistering rage of being the other in America has never so acutely contorted and accurately portrayed for mainstream audiences.
Amir’s nephew Abe (Benjamin T. Ismail) has become enmeshed with the incarcerated imam of a local mosque who is accused of terrorist connections. Abe wants Amir to lend his support, and Emily concurs. Amir’s superficial acquiescence to them will jeopardize everything he’s worked for.
The complex and byzantine ramifications of Amir’s situation become more visceral as the play develops. Though raised by devout Muslims, Amir has become an apostate and, when pressed, intensely critical of Islam’s place in the modern world. He continually makes the argument against Islam even as he grudgingly admits admiration for how its terrorist factions have forced the West to acknowledge it. Yet no matter how he identifies himself, incidents like the one with the waiter show he will always have to deal with how the world frames him.
Beyond knocking off Velázquez, Emily has been incorporating Islamic motifs into her new work, which has caught the eye of a prominent curator, Isaac (Michael Patrick Wiles). Isaac’s African American wife, Jory (Atim Udoffia), is also a colleague of Amir’s at the law firm, an unlikely coincidence, which is the play’s weakest link. There’s an obvious contrivance in the four corners occupied by the main quartet that too easily marks positions when they all meet for a disastrous dinner party.
However, the four principal actors give the flammable scene a gripping performance, beautifully balancing emotion and ideas with complementary interplay. Director Michael Stevenson’s earnest, careful direction allows the drama to unfold with a devastating sense of fate.
Akhtar’s Amir has reached the point where the lifetime of slights and insults, real and imagined, actual and symbolic, will no longer be ignored. The disgraces of a lifetime erupt into searing truth-telling and sudden violence, which irrevocably scars all involved.
What: Capital Stage presents Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” directed by Michael Stevenson.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J Street, Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through Sunday, June 5.
Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org