Range. It’s such a crucial quality for an actor to possess, and as it happens, a fine example of it is on display in Arena Stage’s crackling production of “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s deeply engrossing, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a Muslim American lawyer divided against himself.
The particularly impressive conveyor of this trait on the stage of the Kreeger Theater is Nehal Joshi, who portrays Amir, a successful corporate lawyer who is forced, through a case involving an imam suspected of raising money for terrorists, to come to terms with his unresolved feelings about his own identity. Joshi, Arena audiences will recall, appeared as Ali Hakim, the wily Persian peddler in the company’s smash-hit revival of “Oklahoma!” in 2010 and again in 2011.
The impishness of that lighthearted, musical-comedy turn is nowhere to be discerned in Joshi’s proud, intensely watchable alpha-male Amir. And the transformation confirms an impression of Joshi as an actor to be reckoned with. The part has been written by Akhtar with both passion and a profound grasp of the contradictions America poses for a man of achievement who might be pulled out of airport security lines simply because of the color of his skin. In Joshi, “Disgraced” has found its ideal Amir, as the actor manages the play’s most difficult demand: sensitizing us to the character’s pain, even as we’re made aware of the damage he seems driven to inflict.
Around Joshi, director Timothy Douglas deploys a cast so assured that to my mind the production surpasses the distinguished Broadway incarnation that ran for 149 performances during 2014-2015. Over the course of 90 minutes, the five actors illuminate from five sharply differentiated perspectives why the overlays of class, geopolitics, culture and religious belief have so blurred with emotion any rational discussion of what it means to be Muslim in America.
The linchpin here is Akhtar’s story of misperception, regarding an unofficial appearance by Amir — an American-born Muslim of South Asian descent — at a court hearing for the accused imam. Akhtar builds into his plot a matrix of events that reveals how easily we all fall prey to our flawed assumptions; this pertains as much to the work of Amir’s white wife, Emily (the exceptional Ivy Vahanian), a painter inspired by Islamic art, as it does to the interracial couple (Felicia Curry and Joe Isenberg) who show up for a dinner party marked by more heat being generated in Amir and Emily’s gorgeous Manhattan living room than in their kitchen.
The central irony of “Disgraced” is that it is out of love for Emily and her conviction that a Muslim religious leader could not get justice in this country that Amir goes to the court and suffers as a result. Misidentified by a newspaper covering the hearing as a member of the imam’s legal team, Amir is suddenly all but a pariah at work, where the Jewish senior lawyers had been considering making him a name partner. The ensuing investigation of him turns up a discrepancy in his employee application that in less charged circumstances would have been shrugged off, but now raises suspicions about darker motives and where Amir’s allegiance really lies.
“Disgraced” deals deftly with how prejudice waylays Amir. It skillfully outlines the permutations of betrayal he experiences, and not only as they concern Amir’s ill-advised statement to a reporter at the hearing. Isenberg’s Isaac, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art who’s interested in Emily’s paintings and is married to Curry’s Jory, another hot shot at the law firm, are implicated in undermining Amir in different aspects of his personal and professional lives. That Akhtar makes Isaac Jewish and Jory African American adds tantalizingly to the pot of accusation and resentment that boils over, as Amir senses both his livelihood and his marriage collapsing.
Isenberg gives a subtle account of the patronizing Isaac, who’s not quite the coolheaded intellectual he attempts to project, and Curry, a fixture of musical theater in these parts, is here rewarded with a juicy role that takes splendid advantage of her formidable dramatic gifts. Again, in her case, range proves to be an actor’s best friend. The fifth cast member, Samip Raval, does admirable work as Abe, a young, previously assimilated relative of Amir who is gravitating to Islamist extremism.
Douglas wraps the tension of “Disgraced” in an elegant design: Tony Cisek’s handsome apartment set reflects the arriviste appurtenances of a Manhattan corporate lawyer’s life, down to the abstract stone and metal sculptures on pedestals and walls, and Toni-Leslie James’s costumes capture the arty Emily’s casual stylishness and Jory’s more aggressively tailored fashion sense. The polish of Michael Gilliam’s lighting design, meanwhile, is just what is needed to draw a spectator’s eye back to Emily’s buoyant geometric painting over the fireplace, a work that seems to betoken her love of Amir.
The last fading funnel of light, though, is reserved for Joshi, and rightly so. Amir pays a steep price for sticking his neck out, in a nation whose interest in trying to understand him seems to be dimming. And now, one wonders, how as a society we will ever manage to turn the light back up again.
Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Michael Gilliam; original music and sound, Fitz Patton; fight direction, Cliff Williams III. About 90 minutes. Tickets, $40-$90. Through May 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.