Emily and Amir, the couple at the center of Ayad Akhtar's combustible tragicomedy Disgraced, live well. They reside in an enviable apartment on New York's Upper East Side, with, per the script, "high ceilings, parquet floors, crown molding — the works."
There's a marble fireplace, a terrace, lustrous light slanting through the windows, expensive art on the walls. GableStage's artistic director, Joseph Adler, says that "of all the sets we've had on the stage, this is the one I'd most like to move into."
It won't look so pretty by the end. Objects and relationships alike will be broken as secrets unravel and latent prejudices emerge in a 90-minute play that hurtles before you know it from polite discussion to primal blood sport. Otherwise stable humans with important jobs and calm tempers shed inhibitions and discover depths of cruelty they didn't know they possessed, in a script that vaguely conjures Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage. But while the characters in that infantile play strike the broadest and most heavy-handed notes of savagery, the implosions and explosions of Disgraced are all too specific to each character's belief system and upbringing. When performed well, the results are shattering.
"I don't think there's a play that I wanted to do more than Disgraced," says Adler, who opens his production this weekend. "It's about the single most important subject you can talk about today, and that's tribalism. It's at the root of every single issue that's resonating all over the world. And I don't think there's ever been a play that deals with it more perfectly than this one does. We're privileged to be able to present it to our audience."
Akhtar's script, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 and was nominated for a Best Play Tony when it transferred to Broadway in 2014, is heavy on nuance and light on plot. The Muslim-raised, American-born Amir (Armando Acevedo) is a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer angling for partner at a top firm. He has renounced his faith, a proud apostate leaving behind what he sees as a fundamentally violent, misogynistic, backward religion. His girlfriend Emily (Betsy Graver), described by Akhtar as "white, lithe, and lovely," is a professional artist with a more complicated view of Islam, appropriating centuries of its artistic traditions into her paintings.
Isaac (Gregg Weiner), a mutual acquaintance, curator at the Whitney Museum, and a progressive Jew, is intrigued by her fascination with Muslim art history, and he agrees to exhibit her work. They celebrate the announcement at a dinner party, with Isaac bringing his staunchly conservative African-American wife Dory (Karen Stephens), who works at Amir's firm. They begin to chat about politics and religion, and this is where the gloves come off.
"I read the play in American Theatre magazine when I was looking for monologues to audition," Acevedo recalls. "I came across the play and read it, and halfway through, I realized I didn't like any of the characters. They're the kind of people I'm not used to being around. But by the end of the play, I was incredibly sad for everybody. The play is really heartbreaking, and by the end, I felt for all of them. Nobody escapes this one."
"It's a play full of ideas, but what I found really interesting were the relationships," Graver adds. "All of these people are extremely successful and intelligent, but all fall prey to what everybody falls prey to, and that's, Do we ever get away from what we were raised on? We grow up, and we think we've formed our own beliefs and opinions, but really, have we?"
Weiner admires the fact that none of the characters descends into tokenism, challenging our own stereotypes for each ethnic and religious group. "Once we have an audience, it's going to really help bring out what's really happening onstage, because it's complex," he says. "You've got a black character who sides with a self-loathing Muslim, and you've got a Jewish character who is pro-Islam. It's fascinating in that respect."
The play's multitude of ideas are so prominent — ranging from Islamophobia to political correctness to artistic license to the inkblot interpretations of religion — that Akhtar added a director's note in his script, discouraging the actors to "play ideas," lest the production come off as stilted and preachy. Instead, he asserts, the play is foremost an entertainment. He calls it "something of a situation comedy that becomes an office thriller that becomes a comedy of manners that becomes a play of romantic intrigue and finally ends in domestic tragedy." Adler and his cast hope to realize this distinction by pacing the play accordingly.
"I think it's played like a train engine," Acevedo says. "Once it ignites, it barrels through. There's no way to pull back from that."
"I'm so used to having young new playwrights put in pause, pause, pause, pause," Adler adds. "Annie Baker won a Pulitzer Prize by having longer and longer pauses in her three-hour play, The Flick. This play runs a little under 90 minutes; the pauses in The Flick run 90 minutes."
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GableStage is far from the only theater company producing Disgraced — it has topped the list of the most-produced plays at regional companies in the 2015-16 season. But Adler obtained the rights earlier than most, sliding the play into the final spot of his 2014-15 season, which will end with a proverbial bang. Adler is well aware Disgraced may offend a goodly portion of his audience; if so, it's probably doing its job.
"If you walk out with all of your preconceived notions confirmed by the play, so that you can come out feeling warm and fuzzy because all's right with the world, there's something wrong," he says. "It's not what good theater should do. It should stir it up, disturb you, make you go out thinking. And I love to stir it up."
October 3 through November 1 at GableStage, 1300 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $40 to $55.