THEATRE REVIEW: Secrets rule in ‘Disgraced’ at Chester TheatreMore Info
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven
“I like to believe that some part of you believes what you’re saying.”
If everyone has possession of a damaging secret about someone else, then everyone has some leverage in a negotiation. If everyone has possession of a personal secret, that becomes a hidden but useful bargaining chip. In Ayad Akhtar’s play “Disgraced,” everyone knows something about themselves that reflects harshly on someone else in the room and, as one secret leads to another and another, the outcome is mutual shame, humiliation and disgrace. Drama comes out when anger replaces shame, when remorse claims the place held by humiliation. In this play the only happy ending takes place before the play begins and we never witness it, we only see the aftermath.
Amir and Emily are happily married though each of them covets a little bit more of the world they work in than they already have. Emily’s art needs to be seen; Amir’s career needs to advance to another level: a partnership. They each believe that their goals are achievable, that the plateau beyond can be reached in no time flat. Their friends Jory and Isaac may hold the keys to the doorways that Amir and Emily need to open en route to success. A dinner party is arranged for the four of them to come together and do the right things. However, those secrets withheld serve to block the passageways and the end results of moving through those roadblocks wreak havoc and chaos and danger for all four of them.
Complicating all of this is Amir’s nephew Abe who has a few secrets of his own. His are easily spoken and produce direct consequences, however, and, though peripheral to the greater story, Abe’s storyline points up the deficiencies in the other people’s paths. The construction of this play says a lot about the author, Ayad Akhtar, who clearly is a keen observer of human foibles with a precise method of character creation. His play has a message and there is nothing cryptic about it. By the end of the 90 minutes, you have the moral well in hand: judge not, lest ye be judged; do not, lest you be done.
Abe is played by Abuzar Farrukh, who does a very nice job with his two scenes. In his final appearance, he engenders great sympathy post-violence as he confronts his uncle about politics and personal responsibility. Amir has just given in to emotional fury and, with his consequences still to be played out, it is Farrukh’s mild and moderate presence that sways him. This role of Abe is intended to bring us information but, as played by Farrukh, it also brings us the humility that has gone missing.
Emily is an artist whose break is breaking both her heart and her marriage when her secret is revealed. It comes about through Jory’s flared-up jealousy, which has been sparked by the anger she engenders through telling her secret, a truth about work, to Amir, her compatriot who has already played his hand by suggesting a professional partnership. Caught in a kiss, Emily and Isaac ultimately admit the bottom line indiscretion that sparks the violence.
Kim Stauffer plays Emily and the wonder of her work is how her character’s actual emotions are readable on her face, in her voice and through her body. The actress uses every personal element to show us how she feels in any given moment. Whether its creating a portrait of her husband, or clearing dishes or making a life-altering decision, she is always in accord with her emotional motivation. I used the word “wonder” above and I mean it sincerely, for she manages to astound me with each change she makes. Emily travels a long road in a short space of time. She is a person whose decisions are irrevocable even when they cause her own suffering. Stauffer gives this strong personality great strength, great conviction. She leaves us actually gasping for breath as her determination takes hold. Her work feels all too real, and that’s terrific.
J. Paul Nicholas as her husband, Amir, is an excellent partner in every way. There was never a moment when I doubted Amir’s clarity and honesty. Nicholas plays the drunk scene post-dinner with subtlety and strength, and his earlier moment of violent reactions to the truth are nearly devastating to watch. It is his final moments that really stagger the audience, though, as he struggles to resolve a new understanding of himself as revealed in his wife’s portrait of him. We never see it, except as it is reflected in his reaction to it. This is an unforgettable moment of transition, but to what exactly we do not know, for Akhtar leaves us hanging.
Christina Gordon is lovely as Jory, and then is harsh and dynamic in her fury. The change is brought about not through her own secret revealed but through the overwhelming love she feels for her husband, Isaac, played by Jonathan Albert. Albert has the role of catalyst in this play. So much of what takes place does so because of his actions. He wants to give Emily’s artwork a showcase; he wants his wife to have her success no matter who else that success hurts; he wants to resume a romance that blossomed once and never again. These three elements become fused when Jory tells Amir the truth about her work. With these two characters, one thing leads quickly to another. That everyone else is devastated matters less to them than that they are put in personal jeopardy through their own actions. The disgrace, at bottom, is theirs, but it is interesting how that state of being can spread like a deadly poison. Both actors deliver nicely in their two scenes, very nicely indeed.
Juliana von Haubrich’s apartment set is a wonderful mixture of styles that work together like Amir and Emily do: There is an awkwardness that is easily overlooked until you have to see the peculiar lack of symbiosis. It is the right apartment for these two people—simply not an obvious mirror of who they are, but a subtle picture of awkward mixtures. James McNamara’s lighting is well done without the intrusion of natural light or city light. He lights the room for the room’s sake, and that works well. The costumes by Stella Schwartz easily express the character’s tastes and I especially liked Jory’s outfit, its many layers covering her secrets in perfect harmony.
Director Kristen van Ginhoven once again manages to keep her playwright’s work alive and honest, something she does very well. There are no stagey moments and, even when violence overtakes her characters, it is played with reality — though it startles us, it never emotionally scars us. Her work in this play is never finished for the play seems never done. It is my only complaint about the production: The play cannot end so the pictures presented never do, either.
As drama goes, this play presents a genuine picture of adults in our era — mixed marriages, mixed belief systems, altered understanding and miscommunication. You might think you can get all this at home, but really you need to see how these things play out in another location. Chester Theatre is just that sort of place and this is just that sort of play.
Disgraced plays at the Chester Theatre in the Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, Massachusetts, through Sunday, July 15. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to chestertheatre.org or call the box office at (413) 354-7770.