The most interesting dinner party in the world in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Disgraced. Photo by Dan Norman.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific was considered a stirring and thought-provoking exploration of race and prejudice when it opened. It was also a thrilling musical with a beautiful and witty score, which are the main reasons why it’s mostly remembered and still performed today. Disgraced, now playing next door at the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage, provokes much of the sort of fascination, discussion, and interest that South Pacific provoked when it premiered as one of the most controversial pieces on Broadway in 1949.
Disgraced is not a piece that lends itself well to reductionism. It’s also not a piece for which you should read any synopsis before hand – walk in, sit down, turn off your phone, and get ready to have your socks blown off in 90 minutes. Afterwards you might want to grab a drink; you will certainly want to spend a while to talk about the show and the themes that it engages with, perhaps while gazing out on the Mississippi from the Endless Bridge. Disgraced is easily one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and interesting pieces of theatre to appear in the Twin Cities this year. That it does all these while also being well-paced and riveting to watch is a tribute to the source material, stagecraft, and delivery in this slick production.
Let’s start with the script, which was adapted by novelist Ayad Akhtar from his own 2012 novel of the same name; the play (Akhtar’s first) took home the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This is well-deserved; it is intelligent and deep without being cerebral, and delves into deep places in a way that most other theatrical works seeking that same depth do not. The five characters are well-rounded, nuanced, and individually interesting as they evolve; the twists and turns of the plot are natural in retrospect but also unexpected as they occur. The script also rewards having some knowledge of fine art and architecture, but doesn’t beat novices or experts over the head with this. For once, you can see a character walk onstage and not know what they’ll say or do even before they open their mouth.
It’s hard to imagine Disgraced having been written any time earlier than the last 3-5 years. Its subject matter is immensely topical, and deals with concepts like snap judgments, assumptions, unconscious bias, and the repercussions of our upbringings – and whether there is truly room in this day and age to retract and forgive. The multiethnic and multiracial casting is an essential element of the story, in varying and often subtle ways. The complexity and nuance of how we form judgments and interpret what we see and hear is the most prominent thread in this narrative – and that it’s done without beating audience members over the head with it is a masterful writing feat. If Disgraced is a reflection of what Joe Haj has in store for the Guthrie, then you’ll want to be signing your friends up for season tickets.
A core element in this narrative is a dinner party between Amir (Bhavesh Patel), Emily (Caroline Kaplan), Jory (Austene Van), and Isaac (Kevin Isola). The phrase “the most interesting dinner party in the world” comes to mind: the conversation is really spicy and compelling in its twist and turns, with witty remarks and asides as we get to know the characters. If this first half of this scene was lifted and presented at a one-act play festival, it would be a strong contender for best-of-show; where it goes on next is even more interesting, as things are said that are not easily taken back and a drink or two too many lets down people’s guard. The acting is exquisite, the naturalistic directing of the mainstage action by Marcela Lorca is sublime, and the setting in a Manhattan penthouse is exquisitely rendered through a set by James Youmans, lighting by Rui Rita, and Scott W. Edwards’ sound. Even the costume design by Ana Kuzmanic is subtle yet key, sowing seeds for what comes in each scene.
Disgraced is many things – at times a comedy, at times a drama, and at times an essay on personal and social things that are hard to resolve or come to an agreement on. As brought to life at the Guthrie, it is always entertaining, always engrossing, and always brilliant. The only disgrace, if you see it, is to not bring company – if you haven’t gotten the message already, you’ll want to talk about the play afterwards.
Disgraced plays through August 28 at the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage.