REVIEW: “Disgraced” at the Chester Theatre Company

by Macey Levin

When you go to see Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at the (which you should,) brace yourself for a compelling story, intense When you go to see Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar at the Chester Theatre Company (which you should,) brace yourself for a compelling story, intense disagreements, profound emotions, terrific acting and precise direction. The script’s issues continue to reverberate in today’s world though the play was first produced in 2012.

Amir, an American- Pakistani by birth, and his wife, white Anglo-Saxon American-born Emily, are happily married living in a very comfortable apartment in Manhattan. He is an up-and-coming corporate lawyer and she a budding artist. Many of her paintings have been influenced by her interest in Islam, a religion Amir has abandoned, a cause for some contentious moments.

His nephew Abe, nee Hussein, has asked Amir to advise his imam who is in jail awaiting a trial for supporting the terrorist organization Hamas. Hearing Abe and Emily’s pleas to “Just help,” Amir reluctantly advises the defendant and the defense team, though, he declares, not as a member; however, The New York Times identifies him as part of the team. He is concerned as to how that will affect his position in the
law firm.

Emily has several works being considered for an important upcoming show. The curator at the Whitney, Isaac, a secular Jew whose African-American wife Jory is Amir’s colleague, is very supportive of Emily and complimentary toward her work.

Several months later while awaiting Isaac and Jory to arrive for dinner, Amir tells Emily that one of the firm’s partners has asked him several cryptic questions concerning his background. He fears The Times article is the reason for the renewed scrutiny. Isaac tells Emily that her work has been accepted for the show. What has been a congenial evening turns ugly as secrets are revealed, conflicts and accusations erupt, and lives are destroyed.

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Playwright Akhtar’s dialogue flows with moments of love and humor conjoined with political, racist and religious prejudices producing mounting apprehension. All of the characters having betrayed one or more of the others. The arguments crackle with feverish demands and accusations as each couple explore their relationship as well as themselves. The fervor and strength of the writing pulls the audience in and we become absorbed as the layers of emotion are revealed.

The cast is consistently credible as the undercurrents build to explosive revelations. J. Paul Nicholas’s Amir seems the prototypical rising young lawyer brimming with efficiency and unbridled confidence. At times his lawyerly attitudes take over as he argues with an almost-unctuous Isaac (Jonathan Albert.) His transition months after the dinner party confrontation gives us a more somber, reflective Amir. Isaac also has his edge of self-assurance that flounders as the evening wears on.

Fair-minded Emily (Kim Stauffer) finds herself in the midst of emotional bouts with both Amir and her guests. As an unknown artist she does not have the same certitude as the others. The most sympathetic of the four, Stauffer draws us to her in her moments of anguish. Christina Gordon’s Jory is a strong, single-minded woman who brooks no falsity though she proves to be unreliable. Abuzar Farrukh’s Abe has affecting two scenes, but he triggers the episode that results in calamity.

Director Kristen van Ginhoven fluidly moves the play from its leisurely early scenes into the confrontations that whirl through the second half of the work. The emotional reactions are logical as the tension builds. It would be easy for actors to shout and stomp their feet as they overact in the latter scenes, but the director controls their physicality so that the impact of the play is truer. Her stage pictures enhance the mood of each scene and the persona of each character. It is a meticulously drawn production, complemented by Juliana von Haubrich’s set of a very stylish apartment, the subtle light design by James McNamara and sound by Tom Shread.

Chester’s predilection for provocative plays under the leadership of artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer has established the Company as one of the region’s most vital theatres.

An added bonus is the comfortably low-key, moderately priced restaurant around the corner – Chester Common Table – that remains open after theatre performances end.

Neither the theatre nor the eatery should be missed.

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar; Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven; Cast: Jonathan Albert (Isaac) Abuzar Farrukh (Abe) Christina Gordon (Jory) J. Paul Nicholas (Amir) Kim Stauffer (Emily); Scenic design: Juliana von Haubrich; Lighting design: James McNamara; Costume design: Stella Schwartz; Sound design: Tom Shread; Stage manager: Adele Traub; Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission; Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA; Opens: 7/5/18; Closes: 7/15/18. http://chestertheatre.org/

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