“Disgraced,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by playwright Ayad Akhtar that opened Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, is often discomfiting. Brusque lead character Amir says and does things in the 90-minute one-act that cause the audience to audibly gasp. He uses a corrosive and shocking slur. He speaks about his feelings as he watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center fall on 9/11. And he engages in a bit of repugnant physicality.
While his behavior is complicated, his actions are woven so masterfully into Akhtar’s well-crafted play, it helps to lead us to moments of revelation. Those actions also help to make the Guthrie’s production, staged with elegance and excellence by director Marcela Lorca, this summer’s must-see theater.
The themes in the drama, including terrorism and Islamophobia, make it timely and relevant. Pakistani-American corporate lawyer Amir (Bhavesh Patel) long ago distanced himself from his religious and cultural heritage. A self-described apostate, he considers himself a secular, self-made man, with a swanky apartment and gorgeous white wife to boot.
But things are getting complicated at work, where he hopes to crack a glass ceiling, and at home, where the romantic fires are faint with Emily (Caroline Kaplan), an artist with an interest in Islamic art. On top of that, the larger world sees him through his heritage, not as he sees himself. That point is underscored when his nephew, Abe (Adit Dileep) asks for his support for an imam accused of terrorism-related charges.
Things come to a head at a dinner they host for Amir’s law colleague, Jory (Austene Van) and her art-dealer husband, Isaac (Kevin Isola).
“Disgraced” is often compared to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Both are about booze-infused dinner parties that go awry. But Akhtar’s playwriting guide here may be more Yasmina Reza, author of “God of Carnage,” which shares structural elements with “Virginia Woolf,” and “Art,” in which the explication of a painting casts a light into the characters.
The action in “Disgraced” plays out in the swanky New York apartment designed by James Youmans and lit by Rui Rita. The characters are smartly outfitted by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic.
Director Lorca laces her transitions with a dumbshow in which the characters move through an urban space, sometimes in slow motion. It helps the play to breathe.
To a person, the cast is strong. Patel, alternately off-putting and genial, takes us into Amir’s roiled psyche. The character has separated himself not just from things he finds abhorrent, but also from his sources of strength. Amir plumbs that isolation, giving us Amir’s bluster as a cover for the dis-ease he has with himself. And the actor rides that emotional roller coaster with skill, building to the shattering end.
Patel is well-paired with Kaplan, a performer who knows the power of suggestion. While she is relatively forthright, she draws her strength from her passion and will.
Van, as the law colleague, delivers with similar polish and poise. She also uses suggestion to great effect, shooting a look or saying something forceful in a modulated tone for maximum effect.
Isola’s Isaac looks and feels like a classic dealer. He’s knowledgeable with fluid ethics. Isola works his lines well, giving us a figure that makes us slightly uncomfortable because we sense that he has big secrets and that he is someone who will say whatever is necessary for a deal.
The cast is rounded out by Dileep’s honest and earnest Abe, a nephew rooted in culture. He has the least guile in the show, perhaps because of his youth but also because of his hope for humanity.
Ultimately, “Disgraced” strips away all kinds of layers and veneers. At the personal level, it shows that humans, despite all their sophistication, are animals who root and rut about and who cleave to the herd under threat. At the larger level, it shows that our ideas about freedom, about making ourselves in our own images and dreams, are more ideal than lived. Our choices shrivel up in an atmosphere of innuendo, accusation and fear.
That’s true for a splendid production at the Guthrie and for an unsettled America.