Islamic art

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Disgraced, at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage, is Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner. Its five characters—two couples plus one nephew—are all disgraced before the play ends, one way or another, publicly or not.

Amir (played by Nehal Joshi) is married to an American, Emily (Ivy Vahanian). He’s a lawyer who has masked his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, “passing” as Indian. Emily, a painter, is nevertheless entranced with the artistic language of Islam. She’s approached by museum official Isaac (Joe Isenberg—full disclosure, my talented nephew-in-law!), a Jew, who wants to include her paintings in a high-profile exhibit. She met Isaac through her husband’s law firm colleague, Jory (Felicia Curry), an African American striving like Amir for advancement in the firm.

When Amir is pressured by his wife and nephew Abe (Samip Raval) to look in on legal proceedings against a controversial imam, Amir fears his act may be misinterpreted by his conservative employers. These convoluted relationships could go wrong in many ways, and do at a dinner party involving the multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious foursome. The consequences of even the loosest association with the imam are laid bare.

The person who best keeps his wits about him is Amir’s nephew. In the beginning of the play, he has adopted the name Abe Jensen to seem more American. He gives up this quest and reverts to his birth name Hussein Malik by the play’s end. The play raises important questions about identity and self-identity, passive observer and activist, and religious and secular choices in an increasingly fragmented American society, as well as the persistent and entangling prejudices (in the original, pre-judging sense, emphasis on “judging”) that lurk barely beneath the surface.

Like The Body of an American, reviewed yesterday, Disgraced has an important theme and an excellent cast, especially in its leads (Joshi and Vahanian). Under Timothy Douglas’s direction, this 90-minute production moves rapidly into the quicksand of what the playwright calls our “degraded social discourse.”

Said New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood, “Everyone has been told that politics and religion are two subjects that should be off limits at social gatherings. But watching Mr. Akhtar’s characters rip into these forbidden topics, there’s no arguing that they make for ear-tickling good theater.”

At Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, through May 29. Box office.