East Side Players’ “Disgraced” delivers 90 taut, thought-provoking minutes

Abbas Hussain and Julia Mather in Disgraced; photo by David Lang

I didn’t see the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar in its 2016 and 2017 visits to Toronto, so I was excited to learn that it would be part of East Side Players’ current season. Disgraced is about the things people say and do, the tangled motivations beneath them, and the consequences which can so quickly spin out of their control. East Side Players, guided by Mario D’Alimonte’s assured direction, do this complex work justice, filling the intimate Papermill Theatre to bursting with ideas and emotions that are rooted in pointedly contemporary questions of identity and affiliation. 

The play opens with Amir (Abbas Hussain) who is a successful and assertive Pakistani American lawyer, posing for his white artist wife Emily (Julia Mather) while dressed in his power suit and tie and . . . boxer shorts.  Amir is confident, magnetic and not remotely self-conscious as he strides the room and pronounces his thoughts. Emily is preoccupied by two cases of mistaken identity: one which the couple experienced the previous night, and one that informed the reception of a famous portrait that has been on her mind. Amir shares brown skin with that portrait’s subject Pareja that prompts a “gap” between their realities and the assumptions of other people. 

That gap has inspired Emily to sketch a portrait of her own, in this incongruous and layered opening scene. The couple are in their well-appointed, upscale home, in whose living room and dining room the play will unfold. Tasteful metal, wood and warm colours – punctuated by a painting of Emily’s and a statue of Shiva – are backed by the original brick walls of the Papermill Theatre. This striking set conveys a solidity and integration of elements that – like the emerging sketch of Amir – will soon be at odds with the fracturing reality unfolding in the room. 

Gaps between appearance, assumptions and reality are pervasive in Disgraced. They start with Amir’s underwear, but an explosive dinner party stretches well past the domain of wardrobe into charged discussion that scrape emotions raw and prompts limited – but shocking – action.

Hussain’s Amir is a standout as the play’s focal point: his layered performance reveals a simmering fury and a deeply conflicted relationship with his background that are at odds with his power-suited self-display in the opening scene. A nuanced and intense Aaron Sidenberg is the couple’s Jewish friend Isaac. A Whitney museum curator, Isaac is fascinated by Emily’s work, and is by turns curious and assertively opinionated. Adding further layers is Isaac’s Black wife Jory (a cool Ifrah Bruce), who works at the same law firm as Amir. She is his colleague, his  competitor, and like him an outlier at the predominantly white firm. The final character in the play is Amir’s teenaged nephew Abe (the energetic Gabriel Hudson), whose politics and name choice open up still more gaps and complications for himself and Amir. Mather, initially stiff as Emily, really comes to life in her interactions with Abe and discussions about him. 

No intermission blunts the rising tension generated by the play’s torrent of talk. The characters’ discussions intersect a dizzying array of issues, including Orientalism, Islam, terrorism, birth country scandals, inclusion in the workplace, and art and representation. The multi-racial characters adopt enlightened stances that express an individuality at odds with their tribal affiliations . .  and yet, under duress, they snap back in unsettling ways, playing into stereotypes – or perhaps just seeming to.

l-r: Abbas Hussain, Aaron Sidenberg, Ifrah Bruce, and Julia Mather in Disgraced; photo by David Lang

Is this instinct overwhelming the rational brain? Is this who they really are? Or is each moment just one aspect of some larger, more complex totality? Where you land on this – and what you think this means – is the takeaway from Disgraced. That these questions feel so indelible and urgent is a testimony to the tautness and polish of East Side Players’ production.

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What: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar | Directed by Mario D’Alimonte  | Presented by East Side Players
Cast: Abbas Hussain, Julia Mather, Gabriel Hudson, Ifrah Bruce, Aaron Sidenberg

When: On stage until March 7, 2020

Where: The Papermill Theatre at Todmorden Mills, 67 Pottery Road, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: eastsideplayers.ca

© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.