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Play looks at effects of 9/11 on Jewish/Muslim couples

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Michael Rubenfeld, second from left, stars in 'Disgraced' at Panasonic Theatre in Toronto
Michael Rubenfeld, second from left, stars in 'Disgraced' at Panasonic Theatre in Toronto

Playwright Ayad Akhtar focused on both the harmony and conflict between Jews and Muslims following the events of 9/11 in his drama Disgraced.

The one act play, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is primarily about two married couples intertwined in personal and professional relationships. It opened April 3 at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto.

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Set in a Manhattan apartment in 2012, Amir (played by Raoul Bhaneja) is a Pakistani Muslim attorney, but has rejected Islam as his religion and his roots, preferring to think of himself primarily as an American. Amir works in a prestigious Manhattan law firm owned by Jews and hopes to become a partner in the firm.

Amir’s wife Emily (Birgitte Solem) is an artist who loves putting Islamic tradition in her paintings much to the dismay of Amir. Adding to the mix and conflict is Jewish art dealer Isaac (Michael Rubenfeld), who, like Amir, views himself primarily as an American. Isaac is married to Jory (Karen Glave), a black American who is an attorney with Amir at the same firm. Emily sells her paintings to Isaac, who values Emily’s work.

The couples get together for dinner with polite banter, despite disagreements between the two men. Isaac sees the beauty of Islamic tradition in art and Amir sees nothing memorable with his wife’s focus on Islamic culture. Amir and Isaac also discuss similarities between principles in the Talmud and the Qu’ran and the two couples appear to be the best of friends.

However, the polite banter of the dinner party and harmony of the two couples changes within a short period of time. Amir is asked by his nephew Abe (Ali Momen) to represent an imam, who Abe thinks has been unfairly arrested for mistakenly helping terrorists. Amir wants nothing to do with the incident, but finally gives in to his nephew’s pleas and visits the imam.

Because of the visit, Amir is mistakenly perceived by the Jews who run the law firm as a supporter of terrorism, starting a chain of events that lead to conflict between the two couples.

The events include secrets about the relationship of Emily and Isaac as well as tension between Amir and Jory on who will become a partner in the law form.

When Amir gives in to tense emotions by stating “I take some pride in what happened at 9/11”, Isaac and the others are shocked.

Isaac, rebuffed by Amir’s 9/11 comments, confronts Amir with comments on his pride for being a Jew and supporter of Israel.

An added twist in the plot has the two couples exploding in rage as the audience is engaged in the transformation of the characters. Amir reveals a dark side of his personality in affirming his Muslim heritage.

Both Bhaneja and Rubenfeld (who is Jewish) were superb in their roles as the enlightened Muslim and Jew respectively who both fall victim to pent up anger and frustration.

Disgraced does not have smooth messages of toleration, but illustrates that Jews and Muslims have much in common, despite ideological differences.

“The play is fascinating and goes deep into understanding relationships,” said Rubenfeld.

“You have a black character who sides with a self-loathing Muslim and a Jewish character I play who is pro-Islam. It is a unique perspective from the playwright.”

Disgraced was written in 2012 and premiered in Chicago and also played off-Broadway and regionally in Miami and other cities prior to coming to Toronto for Mirvish Productions..

The play won both the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as the 2013 Obie Award for playwriting.

Born in Winnipeg, Rubenfeld is an actor, director and playwright dominated for 10 Dora Awards for many of his works, such as his plays Essay and My Fellow Creatures.

Residing in Toronto, he has been artistic director of the Summerworks Festival since 2008, presiding over 300 productions.

Since last year, Rubenfeld has been married to Magda Koralewska, a Polish Jew. The couple spends time both in Toronto and Poland where Magda still lives.

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“We do commute as often as possible to see each other. There is such a strong bond between us and a love for Polish Jewry, that is vibrant,” said Rubenfeld.

Rubenfeld’s maternal and paternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Poland.
He has immersed himself into understanding his family’s roots in Poland, creating a documentary about his Polish Jewish roots for which he and creative partner Sarah Garton Stanley received a Canadian Council grant.

“I am very proud of all I have done artistically in my life, including playing Isaac in Disgraced’.”


Disgraced runs until April 17 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651, Yonge St. Toronto. Call 416-872-1212 or click here for tickets.