Good news first. After several difficult years, the Philadelphia Theatre Company has regained ownership of their beautiful Suzanne Roberts Theatre, which they now proudly describe as their permanent home. Good for them – and good for Philadelphia!
PTC will, I’m sure, go on to produce many more interesting plays than Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which – though it won a Pulitzer, and this year is the most produced play in American regional theatres – is clunky and over-obvious.
Actually, maybe that’s why it won the Pulitzer. In the last decade, there’s been a disturbing trend to award Pulitzers for good intentions. (The 2014 award to Annie Baker’s The Flick was a happy exception.) Plays that deal with race and class, in particular, have been recognized over some considerably better-written work.
Disgraced is firmly in that category.
Principal characters Amir and Emily appear to have everything going for them, including good looks, intelligence, and wealth (their New York apartment is to die for). He’s a powerful M&A lawyer; she’s a promising artist. But it doesn’t take long to see cracks in the plaster. Amir has reshaped his own identity, creating a new persona in both personal and public selves – one that carefully glides over potential hot-button issues of religion and national origin. Meanwhile, Emily incorporates middle-eastern traditions into her paintings, in a gesture of good will that is also pretty naïve. Audiences will know instantly that it won’t take long before their carefully constructed lives begin to shatter.
Underlying Akhatar’s script are big issues – how difficult it is to escape family assumptions and prejudices; that the potential for violence can lurk underneath civility; and the powerful allure of success (the script is littered with references to status brands, from Magnolia cupcakes to Charvet shirts).
Worthy topics, all. The trouble is, these themes are everywhere – in movies and especially television shows; also countless books, newspapers and magazine articles. Akhtar doesn’t make something interesting or surprising of them – in fact, for the most part, Disgraced looks like an old-fashioned melodrama about the troubled lives of the rich. (The elegant dinner party that descends into ugly confrontation is a particular cliché.)
Perhaps an extraordinary, brilliantly acted production could provide some of what Akhtar leaves out – a level of disquiet hovering over even the seemingly friendliest conversations, for example, or the tiny nuances that might make us understand how a relationship can fall apart even before the couple themselves know it. At PTC’s opening, the handsome production had a superficial look of accomplishment, but actors were painting in bold strokes, and the stage action was largely inert.
Some of this may grow over time. I hope so. Meanwhile, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that by the end of Disgraced, many characters emerge as worked-over, yet unenlightened. I’m afraid I felt the same way.
Disgraced, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215.985.0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org