Disgraced takes a minor modern anxiety—a dinner party goes awry—and explodes it into a nightmare. The dinner party plot is common in theater, except playwright Ayad Akhtar uses it to plumb new depths by exploring thorny, uncomfortable topics like appropriation and assimilation. And it feels profoundly contemporary: While many plays exist in vacuums, inhabiting a space unconcerned with recent events, the Pulitzer winner is immediately influenced by this country’s cultural growing pains.
The play takes place in an upscale New York City apartment, the sort that looks like a Room & Board catalog. The apartment belongs to Amir (Nehal Joshi) and his wife Emily (Ivy Vahanian). He is a high-powered corporate litigator; she is a successful painter. Amir’s identity is a source of unease in his marriage, thanks to his wife’s work: He has apostatized, while she takes patterns from Islamic art and incorporates it into her own.
Their dinner guests represent an intersection in Amir and Emily’s professional lives: Isaac (Joe Isenberg) is a curator at the Whitney, while his girlfriend Jory (Felicia Curry) is another associate at Amir’s firm. Over the course of dinner and private conversations, the four characters reveal to each other secrets and prejudices until they can’t tolerate each other anymore.
Isaac and Emily discuss Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine’s art critic, since his review will have an impact on her latest show. Alongside his imagined review, there is another off-stage subplot that sounds achingly plausible: An imam is on trial for allegedly funding a terrorist group, and since Amir’s nephew Abe (Samip Raval) attends the accused man’s mosque, he and Emily press Amir to intervene on the imam’s behalf.
The fallout of Amir’s intervention is where Disgraced gets its title. As Isaac pushes Amir about his past, Amir deals with more turmoil, especially now that helping the imam leads him to a professional crisis. He finally acknowledges to everyone that his disdain for Islam comes from a source of reverence, which Emily and the others cannot grasp since he’s usually so defiant in his abandonment of his faith. He internalizes the sacred text, resenting that his wife and Isaac argue about it without serious engagement, and the most powerful scenes are those in which Amir cannot contain his patience.
While Disgraced is a lean 90 minutes, there are suspenseful moments during the dinner’s early courses that feel achingly long. Akhtar’s dialogue dances around discord: The two couples push each other, then let up by discussing the food or other neutral topics, only to go back to needling each other even more deeply moments later. Personal disagreements and broader political and historical debates converge, until the characters are so frayed and upset that their only recourse is to boil over with fury. Still, there are funny moments alongside the uneasy stretches: The characters are self-aware enough to quip about the dinner party spiraling out of control.
Disgraced puts energy into its character development, so the audience gets curious about how each character’s values inform their choices. Isaac is a familiar type—the effete snob who uses his intellect as a shield—and it’s to Isenberg’s credit that the boor underneath this façade is no surprise. Jory is even more fascinating: She’s black, and just like Amir, she wants to succeed within a system that has institutionalized prejudices against her. Emily’s interest in Islamic art doesn’t connect: Her defense of appropriation sounds affected, not sincere, even though Akhtar was going for the latter. Disgraced sees parallels between the characters, but only to a point, and the difference between their respective experiences are the play’s most bitter pill.
There’s a moment where Amir, full of loathing and frustration, defends his last vestiges of faith explosively: “You don’t understand! It’s in my bones!” Joshi reaches a crescendo that’s pitched well above the audience’s comfort level, both in terms of volume and pitch, and Disgraced earns that moment of exaggerated high drama. No one is immune to the institutional biases that work against them—not even the characters who have white privilege—and Disgraced is too smart and angry to let any of them off the hook, anyway.
Through May 29. 1101 6th St. SW. $40–$110. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.