The cast of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, directed by Timothy Douglas, at Arena Stage.
The cast of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, directed by Timothy Douglas, at Arena Stage.
(© C. Stanley Photography)

Disgraced, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Best Play, is receiving its first Washington, D.C. premiere at Arena Stage, and it is in every way an outstanding production. Written by Ayad Akhtar, the play was inspired by a dinner party at his house in 2006, where the conversation turned to Islam. After that conversation, Akhtar felt the relationships of the dinner guests seemed permanently altered toward one another.

Amir is a Pakistani man who is trying hard to lose his Muslim origins. He is a hard-nosed corporate lawyer who lives in a palatial apartment on New York's Upper East Side. His wife, Emily, is an American woman and a painter, who is entranced and influenced by the beauty of Islamic art. Their friends include Isaac, a Jewish art museum curator, and his African-American wife, Jory, a member of Amir's law firm.

The first two scenes take place in late summer of 2011, when Amir and Emily establish their roles in the marriage and toward each other. Amir is brutally rude to his paralegal on the telephone. Emily is concerned about his anger and his unwillingness to help his young nephew, Abe, who is trying to get Amir to support a local imam. Abe feels the man is being falsely accused of helping fund terrorists. In order to appease Emily, Amir goes to the imam's hearing, but is caught in a photo in the New York Times and identified as a member of his law firm and as a "supporter of the imam." Amir's response is unbridled fury.

That fall, Jory and Isaac come to Amir and Emily's apartment for dinner. All goes well during the fennel and anchovy salad course, but soon the issue of that imam comes up, setting off an intense firestorm about Islam and 9/11, beginning with Amir. Emily desperately tries to calm things down, but soon Amir's anger transfers to Isaac and Jory. Amir, Jory, and Isaac reveal the deepest of hidden resentments and attack one another with every possible cultural, religious, and racist epithet.

Nehal Joshi is stunning as Amir, at times humorous and sardonic. He is fully aware of the false persona he has created. At other times, his anger is terrifying. As Emily, Ivy Vahanian is pitch-perfect in all the roles she must play: the understanding wife, the up-and-coming artist, and the horrified hostess who sees her social life crumbling before her.

Joe Isenberg is convincing as the crude Isaac, who freely insults Jory's cooking. Felicia Curry is spectacular as Jory, who for some reason puts up with the insufferable Isaac. It's unfortunately a small role, but a critical one and Curry lights it up.

Akhtar wrote a lot of contradictions and extreme views into Disgraced, and director Timothy Douglas clearly wanted to highlight those extremes. His deft direction makes the play move quickly, allowing the audience to see at breakneck speed how humans brutalize each other under certain circumstances.

Tony Cisek's set is a cavernous apartment, whose walls and upholstered furniture are done in shades of pale gray and blue. From the artwork on the wall to the contemporary sculpture and the view of the Empire State Building out the massive window, the set announces that it is the home of an extremely wealthy couple. Toni-Leslie James' costumes extend the role of wealth in Amir's and Emily's lives. He wears expensive-looking shirts and well-fitting dark suits. She wears less ostentatious clothes while working and a fashionable dress when entertaining. This is well juxtaposed against Jory, who turns up for that famous dinner in a tailored evening suit.

It's impossible to view Disgraced from just one side. This prismatic quality is one of the elements that makes the play so fascinating. Akhtar doesn't write to represent any traditional religious or cultural view. The volcano at the heart of the play erupts to wipe out many forms of hypocrisy and greed. This Arena Stage production is a particularly powerful and provocative statement of the facts of our post-9/11 world.