It’s a finely balanced, beautifully paced production of a worthy new play. There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments, but neither playwright Ayad Akhtar nor director Gordon Edelstein are being shocking just for the sake of being shocking. This is one of those genuinely provocative plays where strong opinions fill a stage until an explosion is inevitable. The set-up sounds like an horrible old joke: a Muslim, his white blonde American wife, their African-American friend and her Jewish husband are all having cocktails. But it’s SO much more nuanced than that. Stereotypes and dramatic conveniences are forgotten as the suspense builds. Edelstein builds one particularly scene into an exquisite ballet of awkwardness and obnoxiousness, as the two male characters’ verbal sparring veers into more and more dangerous topics.
Lee Savage’s set design is the most realistic he’s yet done for the Long Wharf, where his previous designs include Shipwrecked!, The Underpants and Satchmo at the Long Wharf. This could easily have been a Long Wharf Stage II play, given that it has one set and five characters. But the human-scaled multi-room apartment setting designed by Savage not only gives the actors room to move but creates the sense of opulence, status and security the play requires. There’s room to smash a glass in one corner of the stage while a frenzied argument is happening in another. There’s room for a person to pose for painting, at a useful distance from the artist. And there’s room for the characters to lose themselves and find themselves again.
Disgraced is a play about self-realization and self-loathing, about culture and independence, about heritage and assimilation. The characters come off as vulnerable and real, not convenient props for a moral parable. One message that’s easy to glean from it: These people don’t need racism and to ruin their lives and careers—they’re perfectly capable of doing it all by themselves. But it’s a lot more interesting, and enlightening, to see these well-off, comfortable folks afflicting themselves with ill feelings about political events in the world at large. Overstatements and generalizations rub up against individual, unique situations in a manner that creates high drama.
Disgraced is at the Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven, through Nov. 8. (203) 787-4282, http://www.longwharf.org