“In acting, it’s not what you say but what you choose not to say” that creates the tension and dramatic momentum.
That’s his opinion—and his central challenge—said Benim Foster, the engaging young actor who plays one of the lead roles in the talky and controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar.
It’s the Long Wharf Theater’s edgy season opener, a play where every one of the highly educated Upper East Side Manhattanites who populate the chatty dinner party at the center of the action has a huge amount to say about assimilation, the vaunted if limping-along American Dream, and how Muslim-Americans fit into all that.
Or, wait a second: maybe this particular wave of immigrants, in a post 9/11 world, are different, and just don’t. On this close-to-the bone topic, the characters have an even huger amount they are thinking and are rarely comfortable about expressing, even among partners and friends ... until they do, and the conversations explode with accusatory fire.
Disgraced, revolves around Amir, an on-the-move Pakistani-American corporate lawyer; his wife Emily, an artist in love with the aesthetics of Islamic art; and Isaac, a museum curator ready to be convinced of that by Emily to incorporate her work in his show. For his part, Amir is pulled by wife, business associates, and a young radical admirer to, alternately, bury his heritage, take pride in it, and politically assert it. The play thus raises the question of whether “they” can be trusted—a question that courses through our daily lives every time we look at the news.
The play, which opens on Oct. 14 and runs through Nov. 8, is directed by Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein
The crescendoing emotion of the unsaid was the idea Foster shared in a pre-rehearsal interview last week.
Foster knows the play well, because in 2012 he was among the group of actors—playwright Ayad Akhtar is also an actor—who helped create the drama in its original form at the American Theater Company (ATC), a small theater in Chicago. He was Isaac in that production and understudied the role when the play moved to Broadway, and subsequently won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Now Foster is Isaac once again, in his third production.
And yet he said he’s still discovering new things in the work, and appeared as excited as ever about a play that he, modestly, said he, the original actors, and Akhtar helped to birth in Chicago.
“We knew it was going to be a prize winner,” he said.
Steven Scarpa, Long Wharf’s director of marketing and communications, said the play’s material is “ripped from the headlines,” and that was partly why Edelstein chose to bring to Long Wharf what Scarpa said is, at the moment, the most staged play in the country.
Foster was at pains to urge a reporter not to reveal aspects of the play in advance that will require spoiler alerts. He did say there are several moments in every production he’s been associated with where there is a kind of collective, almost audible audience gasp.
That Isaac, whose African-American wife Jory works at Amir’s Jewish-led corporate takeover firm, is also deeply attracted to Emily is just one of the many complications that ripple through the subtext of the play until they flare up, to use Edelstein’s phrase, “like a house on fire.”
After a long, cocktail-fueled speech about the deficiencies of Islam, which makes no distinction between mosque and state, and the horrors of the World Trade Center attacks, Amir surprisingly concludes that, still, “you can’t help but feel just a little bit of pride.”
Isaac replies, “Pride?”
Amir: Yes. Pride.
Isaac: Did you feel pride on September 11th?
Amir: If I’m honest ... yes.
Emily: You don’t really mean that, Amir.
Amir: I was horrified by it, okay? Absolutely horrified.
Jory: Pride about what? About the towers coming down” About people getting killed?
Amir: That we were finally winning.
Amir: Yeah ... I forgot ... which we I was.
“It’s raw, personal, not just ideas, and it [the play] doesn’t apologize. Here it is [Akhtar is saying]. What do we do with it?” Foster said was the challenge the play throws down at the feet of the audience.
“Everyone’s got an opinion, and everyone’s right. It’s a perfect coil, it winds up and it goes ppfwwwew” Foster added, making the sound of an explosion.
How is he approaching a complex play, which he has experienced three times, with fellow cast members who are discovering it for the first time?
“Gordon lets us discover the play on our own. I like to start with a clean slate as if I’ve not done it before,” Foster answered.
He said he follows the playwright’s instructions, which are brief but strong. Essentially, play the play fast, and play it not for the ideas but for the relationships that embody and reflect the ideas.
“I can’t think about ideas. You love your character, you don’t judge how it comes across,” Foster said. “I know Isaac, but I don’t know him. You’ll see an Isaac that’s never been seen before.”
Then he returned to rehearsal.