In modern American theater, it seems like you can’t have friends over for dinner anymore without causing an explosive clashing of cultures. Before you’ve finished your appetizers, guests are sure to be at each other’s throats. GableStage’s current rendition of this stock recipe, “Disgraced,” is full of interesting points about Islam’s role in today’s world, but the production doesn’t quite transcend the intellectual plane into a fully realized exploration of these challenging themes.
“Disgraced” was written by Ayad Akhtar and won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original Broadway production closed less than a year ago. As usual, GableStage is nothing if not timely. The show centers around Amir Kapoor (Armando Acevedo), a Manhattan lawyer and ex-Muslim who is forced to confront his deep-seated feelings about his former faith when his artist wife Emily (Betsy Graver) begins a series of paintings inspired by Islamic culture.
At the same time as the collection brings Emily her first taste of commercial success, Amir’s heritage costs him a promotion at work. When the couple hosts a dinner party with the curator of Emily’s exhibition and one of Amir’s coworkers, who is also married, tensions boil over and harmless small talk escalates into all-out religion war.
Ahktar’s script isn’t afraid to push boundaries, and while the argument around the kitchen table may be an overused stages trope, “Disgraced” is still a bold, thought-provoking piece that deserves its plethora of awards.
Unfortunately, in GableStage’s production, Akhtar’s text does most of the heavy lifting. Amir and Emily are oddly disconnected and prone to flat delivery that seems to prioritize projection over meaning. They serve as mouthpieces rather than characters, paradoxically deflating not only the climactic interactions of the show, but also the clarity and effectiveness of its argument.
Members of the supporting cast turned in a number of memorable performances that helped to redeem the flawed production. Karen Stephens’s natural charisma as the lawyer Jory brought out the best in more uneven scene partners. Of the cast, her character seemed the most like a real human being rather than the embodiment of words on the page. Gregg Weiner brought a much-needed dose of humor to this heavy drama as the art curator Isaac. Although his dramatic moments were more hit-or-miss, Weiner successfully drove the core argument of the show with passion. Newcomer Angel Dominguez brought refreshingly honest energy to the role of Abe, Amir’s devout nephew.
Some technical elements that often fade into the background in such a realistic show deserve recognition. GableStage veteran Lyle Baskin crafted an effective set for the difficult, wide and shallow stage without compromising the believability of the living area. Subtle work by lighting designer Jeff Quinn not only enhanced the realism of the action but also defined the playing space and directed focus for more intimate scenes.
With themes of Islamophobia, cultural conditioning and religious evolution, “Disgraced” is incredibly resonant in our world. For that alone, it’s worth seeing. That makes the problematic production at GableStage that much more frustrating; it comes within reach of creating a powerful impact, but instead falls just short.