Programming a not-for-profit regional theater is a balancing act between challenging material and work that is escapist entertainment, with many a company erring on the side of the latter. And yet last year – with the exception of plays by William Shakespeare – the most produced script in America was Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that holds a mirror up to our racial, religious and ethnic prejudices.
Yes, Disgraced has a cast of only five and a single set, but so do many Neil Simon plays. It is the dramatic economy as much as the budgetary one which makes Akhtar’s cunning, well-crafted intermissionless, 90-minute debate among a lapsed Muslim, a WASPy artist, an African-American attorney and a Jewish museum curator so compelling.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre now has at the play, written in 2012, yet seemingly ripped from today’s xenophobic, travel ban, politicized atmosphere. While the Jupiter troupe has built its reputation on mega-musicals, it lavishes the same care, casting savvy and attention to detail on Disgraced. Credit director J. Barry Lewis with the slow fuse production, which builds in intensity and eventually ignites with shattering results.
Each character is key to the coming storm, but Disgraced is largely the story of Amir Kapoor (Fajer Kaisi), a Pakistani former public defendant turned corporate mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer. Ill-at-ease with his Muslim roots, Amir’s free fall from grace can be traced back to his attendance – at the urging of his wife Emily (Vanessa Morosco) and his nephew (Eddie Morales) – at the trial of an imam accused of assisting terrorists.
Implying that his appearance there reflects badly on the law firm, two senior partners interrogate Amir about his motives and about his ethnic background. Back at his Upper East Side New York apartment of privilege, Amir is still fuming, but he must try to repress his anger, for he and Emily – an artist preoccupied with paintings that prominently feature Islamic icons – are throwing a small dinner party.
She implores him too make nice with Isaac (Joel Reuben Ganz), a Whitney Museum curator potentially interested in acquiring Emily’s art, and his black attorney wife Jory (Chantal Jean-Pierre), a colleague or Amir’s and his competitor for an imminent promotion. Everyone who can see the explosions ahead, raise your hands.
Kaisi, who has previously played Amir in a Pittsburgh Public Theatre production of Disgraced, fuels his character with increasing amounts of arrogance and alcohol, as he pushes back against Isaac’s ethnic needling. Morosco’s Emily has her own high stakes in the evening and she believably juggles her career anxieties with her gradually evident marital discord. Neither Isaac nor Tory is as well drawn as the central couple, but the performers manage to flesh them out beyond the written word.
Anne Mundell’s scenic design of Amir and Emily’s apartment emphasizes the status and sterility of their lives, aided by the stark lighting of Paul Black. Amir believes in dressing for success, a trait well rendered by Leslye Menshouse’s costumes. Emily and the others are garbed more casually, but are still fashion-and status-conscious.
Disgraced is exactly the sort of prestige New York hit play that Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre used to bring to South Florida. That the Maltz has filled that void, and done so with such uncompromising skill, is one more reason we are fortunate to have such a first-rate organization in our midst.
DISGRACED, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Rd., Jupiter. Through Sun., Feb. 26. Tickets: $56 and up. Call: 561-575-2223.