Race, religion and money drive the action in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” a unique entry in the dinner-party-goes-south genre that descends from Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Kansas City audiences have seen Akhtar’s work in “The Who & The What,” an affecting drama about a Pakistani-American family in Atlanta, and “The Invisible Hand,” a cerebral thriller about terrorism and international finance. Both were staged by Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
But “Disgraced,” which claimed the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was his theatrical calling card. The show was staged both off and on Broadway and became one of the most widely produced plays in regional theaters.
Now it comes to Kansas City, where Sidonie Garrett directs a talented cast in a Unicorn Theatre production. Akhtar’s play is smart and schematic, layered with cultural tensions, and clearly is intended it to be a psychological pressure cooker. The Unicorn version never makes it above a low boil. Too often the production feels remote.
“Disgraced” is a clever construct in which people onstage aren’t full-fledged characters as much as they are symbols representing a host of cultural resentments. In the mix are issues of assimilation, anti-Semitism, racism, cultural estrangement and the illusion of equality.
The play unfolds in the stylish, upper East Side apartment of Amir (Alexander Salamat), a successful mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer hoping to make partner in a Jewish law firm, and his WASP wife, Emily (Molly Denninghoff), a painter heavily influenced by Islamic art.
As the play opens, Amir is posing for her as she sketches a study for a painting she wants to create based on Diego Vasquez’s 1650 portrait of his Moorish slave, Juan De Pareja, which cues cultural appropriation as one of the play’s key themes.
The American-born Amir is Pakistani by heritage but at some point he legally changed his last name to Kapoor, a common Punjabi name that signals “India” rather than “Pakistan.” Although raised in the Muslim faith, he considers himself an apostate.
When his nephew, Abe (Michael Thayer), persuades him to get involved in the legal case of an Imam under investigation by the feds, Amir’s world begins unraveling.
Cut to the centerpiece of the play: A dinner party which begins cordially but leads to a succession of searing revelations. Amir and Emily’s guests are Isaac (Matt Rapport), a Jewish art curator who wants to include Emily’s work in a show at the Whitney, and his wife Jory (Shawna Pena-Downing), an African-American attorney who works in the same office with Amir.
Increasingly tense exchanges about Israel, the 9/11 attacks, conflicting interpretations of the Koran and racial privilege turn dinner among sophisticated New Yorkers into catastrophic meltdown. A marital infidelity is revealed followed by an act of shocking violence.
For this play to work, it needs to crackle with electricity. This production suffers from too many tentative choices by the actors and an inability to find the proper balance between the play’s melodramatic elements and its ironic sense of humor. The scenic design by Tristan James places the dinner table upstage, creating too much distance between the audience and the play’s most explosive exchanges.
The show runs about 90 minutes with no intermission, but in that relatively brief running time Akhtar delivers perspectives, opinions and points-of-view for us to consider long after the curtain call.
“Disgraced” runs through Nov. 12 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-542-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org.