A Pulitzer Prize winner for its Off-Broadway run, Disgraced speaks to the instability of today’s American society. Successful young lawyer Amir (Hazem Shammas) and his artist wife Emily (Kat Stewart) enjoy the ritzy lifestyle that their careers and Upper East Side apartment afford them. Emily is fascinated with all things Islam, focusing her latest artistic works on Islamic styles and themes, including a portrait of her Muslim husband. Amir has cast aside his religion to focus on his career, but when his nephew Abe (Kane Felsinger) brings to his attention a local imam arrested on possibly persecutory charges of financing a terrorist group, Emily encourages him to support the cleric in court. He does, and The New York Times’ coverage of his appearance puts him suddenly on shaky ground with his employers.

Meanwhile Emily’s latest collection has been picked up by Jewish art dealer, Isaac (Mitchell Butel) and to celebrate Emily and Amir host a dinner party for Isaac and his wife Jory (Zindzi Okenyo), who conveniently for the plot is not only a work colleague of Amir’s, but African American. With the characters suitably representing America’s melting pot, playwright Ayad Akhtar quickly sets his way towards the inevitable taboos of dinner party conversations, race and religion.

It’s all a bit too contrived and quite often pushes the boundaries of believability as the tensions between the quartet ramp up to explosive levels and things get completely out of hand. As a subject matter it’s of course very topical, but as an observation on society its end purpose seems blurry.

The story may have more impact with better execution, but there are many aspects of this production that seem to be sitting below what the Melbourne Theatre Company are usually capable of. Costume designs by Jill Johanson are scatty to say the least. Emily seems to dress like three different women across the course of the play, Jory and Isaac look like they haven’t bought a new item of clothing this century and Amir’s scripted taste in clothing isn’t reflected. Shaun Gurton’s set design seems focused purely on a set change that comes late in the play, looking sparse and under-dressed for the rest of the time, while the furniture that is on display looks cheap and unbecoming of the status of its owners. What’s worse is it doesn’t work well for the pivotal dining table scene.

Despite these problems, one would hope that Director Nadia Tass would do more to overcome the issues of said scene than simply have her cast sit around the table like they’re at The Last Supper. There are so many moments in this production that are handled without finesse, none the least of which is an embarrassingly haymaking fight sequence, choreographed by Brad Flynn, and Tass’ signature ‘final moment’ treatment of a painfully languid and emotionally manipulative slow blackout that tries to force a non-existent reaction.

Of the cast, Kat Stewart shows why she’s an actress in high-demand, skilfully demonstrating Emily’s naivety and privileged point of view. Hazem Shammas is an unconvincing yuppie, but that aside, he plays the emotional rollercoaster of Amir’s tragic circumstances with sensitivity and intelligence. Mitchell Butel is a natural comedian and he makes the most of every opportunity to get a laugh from Isaac’s dialogue, however he does lack a certain charisma as the shrewd art dealer. Zindzi Okenyo gives a terribly affected performance that seems driven by a clichéd idea of how a wealthy lawyer-type should speak, leaving naturalism behind, thanks perhaps in part to Suzanne Heywood’s dialect coaching.

Disgraced is an eristical play that is ultimately unfocused and unclear on the argument it’s trying to make with the controversy it stirs up. Sure, it’s reflective of an American society that hits out whenever its sense of self is confronted or disrespected by others, and that has parallels with the social order of Australia, but in this format it doesn’t feel culturally valuable on the whole. Interesting, but not urgent. If you’re looking simply for polemic, then Disgraced may satisfy a need to feel conflicted.

 

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