‘Disgraced’ at the Rep is an intense, powerful play of ideas

From left, Jonathan C. Kaplan, Rachel Christopher, Leigh Williams and John Pasha perform in The Rep’s production of ‘Disgraced.’ Photos: Peter Wochniak / ProPhotoSTL.com

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“Disgraced,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar about the rise and fall of a Pakistani-born lawyer living the good life in New York, is an intense, powerful work that is equal parts emotional, thought-provoking and engrossing.

The drama is directed with tremendous skill by Seth Gordon and features superb performances by Jon Pasha, in the lead role of Amir, and bolstered by the play’s other four actors. It details the struggles of Muslims from southern Asia adjusting to life in America in ways that are remarkably similar to American Jews.

Both Jews and Muslims, as well as other immigrant groups in America, have had to balance the temptations of acculturation and assimilation, breaking free of the constraints and biases of their religion and ethnicity while remaining sufficiently loyal to the “tribe” to which they belong. 

As Amir struggles with his religious and ethnic heritage with a mix of nostalgia and rage, one is reminded of the similar plights by such Jewish authors as Budd Schulberg in “What Makes Sammy Run?” or Philip Roth in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” 

Amir, the conflicted protagonist, is a hyperactive, overly ambitious, assimilated New Yorker who left his native Pakistan as a young child. No matter where he is or what else is going on, Amir’s right hand is glued to his cellphone, from which he makes nonstop work-related calls.


He is also tall and handsome and gives the physical impression of strength and self-confidence.  (The name “Amir,” which is found among both Jews and Muslims, means “strong.”)

Amir lives in an upscale, spacious apartment, tastefully decorated with various high-ticket art objects, including an impressive Islamic-inspired work by Amir’s Caucasian wife, Emily, convincingly portrayed by Leigh Williams. 

While Amir does not deny his Muslim upbringing, he is clearly a highly secularized agnostic who rages against the ways of his Pakistan-born parents, especially those of his mother who exhibits anti-Western and anti-Jewish biases, which he finds deeply offensive.

While Amir is highly conflicted and critical of his Islamic roots. Emily, an up-and-coming artist, is enamored of Muslim culture and religion. She points to the many contributions to civilization made by Muslims, including mathematics, astronomy and distinctive poetry.

Amir rails against language in the Koran and other Muslim texts, which seem to justify wife beating, which Emily counters by saying that the Arabic word for “beating” could also be translated as “leaving.”

The audience first encounters the 30-something couple in the living room of their spacious apartment. Emily is in the midst of painting a portrait of Amir in the style of 17th century Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. The distracted Amir barks continuously into his cellphone while he poses in an expensive suit coat and shirt but no pants, which makes for an odd visual, even though Emily is painting Amir from the waist up. 

Amir has a young nephew who has changed his name from “Hussein,” a respected Muslim name, to “Abe” in order to be more Americanized.  Ironically, “Abe” is a nickname for Abraham, who is considered an important figure by Jews, Christians and Muslims. 

In Abe (Fahim Hamid), Amir sees a younger version of himself, a young man caught between two worlds: trying to connect with American society while being drawn to charismatic Islamic figures such as an imprisoned imam accused of terrorism and urging his favorite uncle to lend his legal talents to help gain the iman’s release.

Meanwhile, Emily’s ambitions to make it in the art scene parallel Amir’s social climbing in the world of his Jewish-dominated law firm, which specializes in mergers and acquisitions.

Emily has befriended a Jewish curator named Isaac, who has offered to get her work exhibited at the Whitney Museum. However, it soon becomes apparent that Isaac (Jonathan C. Kaplan) has a deeper interest in Emily than merely mentoring her artwork.  The name “Isaac,” of course, is the name of Abraham’s son and the half-brother of Ishmael, who is regarded as the ancestor of all Arabs and Muslims.

Kaplan portrays Isaac with just the right balance of irony and pretentiousness.

And if things were not enmeshed enough already, Isaac’s African-American wife, Jory (a fine performance by Rachel Christopher), is also an associate at Amir’s law firm.

In the course of the 90-minute play, which is performed without intermission, Amir is transformed from a self-confident, driven, New York lawyer into a self-doubting, explosively angry person who attempts to self-medicate with alcohol and obsessive work.  A pivotal scene in which Issac and Jory join Amir and Emily at their apartment for dinner moves from placid small talk to escalating rage, with shattering consequences for everyone around the table.

Amir must come face-to-face with his nephew’s ambivalence toward Islam, which mirrors his own, with the shaky foundation on which his seemingly happy relationship with Emily is built, and with the ongoing prejudices, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that continue to exist even in highly educated, outwardly “polite” society.

Gordon’s sensitive direction of this complex play is bolstered by the top-tier work of his colleagues on the creative staff:  scenic designer Kevin Depinet, costume designer Dottie Marshall Englis, lighting designer Ann Wrightson, sound designer Rusty Wandall and stage manager Emilee Bucheit. The set design is so impressive it is practically a character in the play.

Don’t miss this riveting and splendidly produced play by a major young playwright in American theater.