We know the rule by heart: Don’t discuss religion or politics in polite company. Probably not in impolite company, either, unless you’re really itching for a fight on Facebook. But in Ayad Akhtar’s provocative Disgraced, the most off-limits of subjects roar to the surface at a small dinner party, imploding the lives of two couples from different ethnic backgrounds.
Disgraced, which closes the 2014-2015 season at GableStage, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 — it was Akhtar’s first play; he’s also the author of The Invisible Hand and The Who & the What, as well as the novel American Dervish — and its success is no mystery. This sleek, swiftly paced, topical work moves nimbly from drama to occasional comedy and back again as it examines the difficulties of being Muslim in post 9/11 America and the secret prejudices that persist inside even the most outwardly progressive people.
With a terrific cast and impeccable timing, GableStage’s version, directed by Joseph Adler, is riveting and incisive, inciting laughter and gasps in equal measure. Disgraced, which takes place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in late 2011 and 2012, runs 90 minutes with no intermission. A brisk pace is vital, and Adler’s production is lively and electric as it steams inevitably toward that final explosive evening of social, emotional and cultural chaos.
As the play opens Amir Kapoor (Miami native Armando Acevedo) and his artist wife Emily (Betsy Graver) are at odds over a family matter. Emily, a WASP who explores Islamic traditions in her work and is sympathetic to Muslim causes, wants Amir to help his nephew Abe (who has just changed his name from Hussein in order to avoid the inevitable hassles). Abe (Angel Dominguez) wants his uncle, a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney, to get involved in the case of an imam Abe says has been unfairly imprisoned on charges of helping terrorists.
But Amir, who has turned away from his Muslim roots, wants nothing to do with the imam or Islam either. He has rejected his religion, even claimed to be Indian instead of Pakistani — which has undeniably aided his successful career. When Emily protests that the Quran is beautiful, he is adamant about its dangers. “It’s not just beauty and wisdom,” he says darkly.
But Amir gives in and does visit the imam, which sets in motion a chain of events that threaten his peace of mind and his job. Finally, one night at a dinner with his African American colleague Jory (Karen Stephens) and her Jewish husband Isaac (Gregg Weiner), an art dealer who is considering Emily’s work for a show, Amir, fueled by frustration and far too much Scotch, explodes.
The cast is impressive, with Weiner getting much-needed laughs as the tension builds and Acevedo pulling off the seemingly impossible trick of making Amir’s struggles universal. His plight is specific to modern Muslim Americans, but Disgraced also captures the death grip our upbringings have on us. There’s something in Amir’s defiance that rings bitterly, painfully true, no matter who you are or where you’re from.
If you go
What: ‘Disgraced’ by Ayad Akhtar.
Where: GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no evening show Oct. 4, additional matinees Oct. 24 and Oct. 31). Through Nov. 1.
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.