The most interesting argument in Disgraced—a compelling new play by Ayad Akhtar that opened Monday night at the Claire Tow Theater—comes before the histrionic ones raised by the play’s shocking but predictable climax.
Amir (a surprisingly excellent Aasif Mandvi, of The Daily Show) is a BlackBerry-armed corporate lawyer in Charvet shirts who lives in a meticulously decorated East Side prewar. Born and raised Muslim and now non-observant, he is happily, yuppily married to a WASP. That WASP, Emily (Heidi Armbruster), is a painter specializing in Islamic-influenced art, and she has just received word from their friend Isaac (Erik Jensen), a curator at the Whitney, that she will be included in a group show there. A celebratory dinner party with Isaac, who is Jewish, and his African-American wife, Jory (Karen Pittman), a fellow associate at Amir’s law firm, begins with conversation about art, moves to a discussion of the Koran, and leads to Amir’s increasingly frustrated insistence that Muslims are offered only two choices: They can be believers, and reject modernity, or they can be apostates, as he calls himself, and live a successful American life. There is, he says, no middle ground.
His point, if true, is a disturbing one, especially to a Lincoln Center Theater audience of contentedly non-observant Jews and country-club Episcopalians. (This is a production of the LCT3 series for younger playwrights.) When Amir argues that the Koran was written as a guide for a tribal, nomadic society and has no relevance today, and Isaac counters that it wasn’t the only holy book designed for a group wandering in the desert, Amir uses the comparison to underline his point. Jews, Amir says, have spent centuries arguing about how to interpret and implement the Torah’s laws in a modern world, while Islam has insisted on literal adherence to the words of the prophet. Which is why he has rejected it.
But as the single malt is poured and tensions mount—and they are also professional ones: Jory is being made partner before Amir—things spin out of control, and suddenly Amir’s rejection of Islam becomes less comprehensive. He confesses to feeling a small sliver of pride on Sept. 11, 2001, while simultaneously being horrified with himself for it. He tells Jory that he’s “the real nigger in the office.” To Isaac he remarks, “You Jews see anti-Semitism everywhere.” From there, things get much worse. In Mr. Akhtar’s dualistic take on Islam, Amir has shifted from the worldly apostate to the atavistic believer. Emily has prepared pork; it is never served.
The performances are strong, the direction, by Kimberly Senior, is competent but sometimes a bit sloppy, and the set, by Lauren Helpern, is Lincoln Center-ly lush. But the play itself, while admirable and entertaining, is something less than convincing. It raises and toys with provocative and nuanced ideas, but tosses them aside for high-stakes melodrama. I wanted more of the nuance—but, then, that’s what you’d expect from a liberal Jew.
But maybe you prefer your theatrical Islamic terrorism sitcommy rather than soap operatic? If so, you’re in luck, because Jon Kern’s very funny, fairly simplistic Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them opened last week at the Second Stage Theatre.
The lights come up on a dark-skinned young man at the lip of the stage wearing bulging briefs, gym shorts around his ankles. A darker-skinned accomplice hunches before him, installing a crotch-mounted suicide bomb. It’s a great, laugh-out-loud opening moment, and the dialogue promptly sets about milking more laughs. The plan is for Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar, winning as a sensitive terrorist) to set off his bomb at the top of the Empire State Building. “Did you watch the research film I gave you?” asks Qala (William Jackson Harper), the ringleader. “Yes,” replies Rahim. “So you watched Sleepless in Seattle?” When Qala is concerned that Rahim’s testicular perspiration might interfere with the bomb, Rahim assures him: “Check my nuts. Dry as a ShamWow.” And we’re off.
Rahim, a Pakastani-born American college student, tried hard to be a “chill bro,” he says, but never quite fit in. Flipping from CNN to MTV one day on his “sick flat-screen,” he realized the vacuity of American society and decided to become a jihadi. Qala, who studied “with the best bomb-makers in Yemen,” is determined to become as famous as Bin Laden. Their third roommate, the pretty, sassy Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), lost her husband to an American drone strike. They share a run-down apartment in Brooklyn, where they have the requisite wacky neighbor: Jerome (Steven Boyer), a hipster stoner in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt who just wants to hang out with Rahim.
It’s a funny premise—the misadventures and misunderstandings of Carroll Gardens terrorists—and a laugh-out-loud play, directed for maximum comedy by Peter DuBois. Three’s jihadi, too. A bomb part breaks, but it’s under warranty. FedEx delivers the replacement to the wrong apartment. Qala bought fuses and explosives but forgot toilet paper. Rahim and Jerome bond over the Chicago Bulls. Rahim is obsessed with Star Wars.
Modern Terrorism settles into a comfortable, comic vibe: bumbling would-be bombers, slowly being seduced by American pop culture—if Rahim borrows Yalda’s iPod for the train to the Empire State, how will she get it back?—and affection for one another. The play seems poised for a happy ending.
So it’s a shock, unexpected and maybe even a little unconvincing, when everything goes wrong. But then you think back to the song that played as the house lights went down: Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again.” It’s the soundtrack of the final scene in Dr. Strangelove, heard directly after Slim Pickins falls to earth, a bomb between his legs. These things never end well.
The religion That Colman Domingo grapples with in Wild With Happy, the hugely talented actor and dancer’s latest playwriting effort, which he also stars in and which opened last night at the Public Theater, isn’t Islam or even really Christianity but rather the quest for peace and spirituality undertaken by a black woman and her gay son.
Domingo plays Gil, a struggling actor in New York whose mother is sick and dying in Philadelphia. He’s too busy, or too afraid, to see her in her final months, and after her death he arrives in his hometown to figure out what to do with her body—and what to do without her. He has her cremated, to the horror of his in-your-face Aunt Glo (the hilarious Sharon Washington). “Black people don’t do that,” she yells in horror. “You don’t do that unless a person was burned or mutilated or too fat to fit in a coffin!” With his flamboyant friend Mo (Maurice McRae), Gil takes off on a road trip that ends up at Disney World. He’d been there with his mother just when she got sick, and she’d been happy there. It’s a cheesy ending (and that’s without mentioning the Cinderella Castle Suite, the handsome suitor and the proffered shoe), not to mention an Oprahfied one—find your own peace—but it’s also sweet.
As is the play. It offers an immensely entertaining cast, silly and sumptuous sets (by Clint Ramos), and adventuresome, over-the-top direction by Robert O’Hara. Sure, it can use some modulation—must everyone yell, all the time?—and goes on about 10 minutes (and three endings) too long. Or maybe not: watching Mr. Domingo can leave you wildly happy.