‘Disgraced’ wrestles with Islamophobia

By: Henry Eden ~Campus News Editor~

Photo courtesy of Mikki Schaffner | Directed by Lisa Portes, Playhouse’s Disgraced stars Barzin Akhavan as Amir (center left) and Krystel Lucas as Jory (center right) and culminates during a heated dinner party exchange on race.

Following Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s announcement detailing its 2016-17 lineup, theatergoers around Cincinnati have eagerly awaited the Shelterhouse Theatre’s first performance of the season, and for good reason.

Ayad Akthar’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony award winning Disgraced was the most produced play in the United States in 2015, and Akthar remains the second most produced playwright across the nation.

The play is receiving increasing demand for a reason. People want to see the show, but they don’t necessarily like what they see. What Akthar presents to the audience is a brutal look at Islamophobia in America.

Furthermore, the play seamlessly shows the incredible weight and building tension that results from negligence and insensitive mishandling of intercultural situations. Akthar has written a script that nails its intention almost flawlessly.

The Playhouse’s production definitely lived up to expectations. A production of such an acclaimed play at one of the best regional theaters in the country with a director like Lisa Portes is a combination that would hopefully yield one of the best productions the play has seen yet.

Disgraced needs to be carried by a strong actor in the role of Amir. This show begins and ends with Barzin Akhavan. A lot can be said about how Akhavan inhabits the character. He’s quirky, comical and, perhaps even more evident, he’s expressive and dramatic.

Throughout the show, he was able to distinguish the character as an outsider, so integrated into society, yet still not wholly comfortable with the way that he lives day to day.

During the climactic dinner party, Akhavan switched from passive-aggressive to viscerally intense at the drop of a hat, attempting to let unintended microaggressions pass before finally being roped into a pointed and honest argument of what Islam truly means and what it means to be a Muslim or person of Middle- Eastern descent in the United States. He underwent remarkable changes and ended the show seeming truly uncertain of where to go. It’s a strong performance.

The rest of the group involved in the dinner party was well cast and affected Amir’s character greatly. These were Bethany Jillard as Emily, Krystel Lucas as Jory and Maury Ginsberg as Isaac.

Jillard and Akhavan play a married couple, but their on-stage chemistry was lacking at times. Jillard was able to hide her character’s secret affair with Isaac extremely well.

Emily’s devotion to Amir was evident, and her desires for him to be happy and to be happy for her were both easy to interpret. Her more complicated relationship with Isaac came truly out of nowhere. It made for one of the most interesting scenes in the dinner party, where no one can look away for a moment.

Lucas’ portrayal of Jory was incredibly believable as a sharp, cut-throat, up-and-coming lawyer competing with Amir for partner status at their mergers and acquisitions firm. She pushed the conversation and brutally admonished Amir at the cap of her character’s involvement.

Ginsberg’s Isaac was another highlight. Ginsberg is unapologetic, unfiltered and constantly pushing the envelope, undercutting Amir at every turn in an attempt to emasculate and embarrass him in hopes of winning Emily’s love. The two traded increasingly intense insults about each other’s heritage as tension boils over. He is not a character to love, but Ginsberg’s performance was easily one of the most dynamic.

Rounding out the cast was Amin El Gamal as Amir’s Americanized nephew, Hussein Abdullah. Gamal’s portrayal of the character was somewhat distracting at first, leaving the audience wondering about the choices made for the character. However, Gamal’s final scene and speech to his uncle following a harrowing encounter with federal authority remains one of the most powerful moments of the play.

Disgraced runs through Oct. 23 at the Shelterhouse Theatre at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in Mount Adams.