Theatre review: Disgraced, Bush Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

There's an unnerving frisson of electricity running through this new American play by New Yorker Ayad Akhtar. Disgraced won last year’s Pulitzer prize for drama, not usually a signal of quality. But this play's a cut above the norm in its nimble wit, toughness and pressing "now-ness".

It distils arguments about race and religion in a boulevard comedy setting of a dinner party on New York’s Upper East Side, then booby-traps the host, and the audience, in a messy post-prandial meltdown.

Above all, it shows how the intellectual fall-out from 9/11 is still radioactive among the professional classes: Harry Dhillon’s Amir is a dashing New York corporate lawyer of Pakistani extraction hoping for a partnership in a Jewish company.

His wife, Emily (Kirsty Bushell), is a painter also hoping for preferment with their dinner guest, Isaac (Nigel Whitmey), a curator at the Whitney, and Jewish, whose own wife, Jory (Sara Powell) is black – and a law firm colleague of Amir. 

This intertwining doesn’t feel false in Nadia Fall’s beautifully modulated production because of the bonds in their friendship -- until the strain begins to show and pleasantries over the starters of fennel, peppers and celery give way to loaded face-offs over justice and order (did Amir feel pride when the towers came down?), Muslim apostasy and authorised hate-mail to humanity.

Much of this goes way beyond the temperature any of us might generate at our own dinner tables, but the cleverness of the play lies in its recognisable roots in everyday “sounding off” – Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens come in for a nice buffeting as “sanctimonious British bullies” by Amir – and the discussion about alleged Islamo-fascism insists on distinguishing between mosque and state.

At the same time, there’s a thread of anxiety about origins, assimilation and cultural colonisation: in the opening scene, Emily, who has decorated the apartment in Islamic tiles, is painting a portrait of her husband in an expensive Charvet shirt, inspired by the Velázquez portrait of his own slave, Juan de Pareja, who was of Moorish origins.

The choice of the painting is doubly piquant as it’s embedded in New York life on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, adding another layer of appropriation that is exploded in the last scene when Amir’s nephew, Abe (Danny Ashock), visits Amir, who is stripping the apartment of his books, with the bad news that he’s newly radicalised. 

To 29 June (020 8743 5050)