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Reading — not seeing — plays as part of Pulitzer drama jury is unique experience

Heidi Armbruster and Aasif Mandvi starred in the Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 production of Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar. The Pulitzer jury liked, among other things, the play’s topicality as well as its sharp writing and construction.

Photo by Erin Baiano

Heidi Armbruster and Aasif Mandvi starred in the Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 production of Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar. The Pulitzer jury liked, among other things, the play’s topicality as well as its sharp writing and construction.

I went back and read Disgraced, the play by Ayad Akhtar that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, for the third or fourth time recently, and I was gratified to realize how engrossing and smart it still felt to me. The first few times I read Akhtar's play it was as a member of the five-person jury that considered all of the plays submitted from 2012 and selected three finalists to be sent to the Pulitzer board, which chose the winner that was announced in April.

Note that I say "read" the play. I have not seen Disgraced, except for brief excerpts on the website of New York's Lincoln Center, where it was produced, nor have I seen the other two finalists, Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo and 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog. Several of my fellow jurors had seen productions of these plays, but the Pulitzer for drama is essentially a literary prize, with the performance taking place in your imagination, and I think that makes sense. Stagings vary widely, but words on the page have an empirical fixity. As someone once said, the play's the thing.

Being on the Pulitzer drama jury was one of my best experiences ever as a journalist, not least because of the collegiality of my colleagues: chair Peter Marks, theater critic for the Washington Post; playwright Donald Margulies, whose Dinner with Friends was awarded the 2000 prize; Jill Dolan, a professor of English and theater at Princeton University; and Alexis Soloski, theater critic for the Village Voice.

Starting in September, each of the jurors got scripts periodically delivered from Columbia University, which administers the Pulitzers. In the end, I received four cardboard boxes of them, a total of 72 plays. Our deadline was Feb. 1, when we were scheduled to get together in New York to discuss the submissions and choose the finalists. This involved a whole lot of reading, not unlike cramming for final exams when it got down to crunch time in January after the final shipment of 31 plays had arrived.

The submissions ran the gamut from plays by well-known writers that were given Broadway productions to works by authors I had never heard of. Several books from musicals were submitted. In all, my reading provided an interesting snapshot of what new theater is being done around the country. Eventually, as I worked through the accumulated scripts, I established a rough and ready system of sorts in which I had one pile of plays that were definite possibilities, another pile of maybes and a third of definitely nots.

As a critic, I found it instructive to read so many plays, because I don't tend to read them much before I go to performances I am reviewing, preferring to experience them more or less for the first time like any audience member, though I read the scripts afterward. For quite a while during my judging process, I read every play all the way through, no matter how bad — and there were some nutty ones — but I got to the point where I could tell in the first 25 pages or so if it was worth continuing. In the end, my piles of definite possibilities and maybes numbered around 20.

When the jury met at Columbia, it took just a few hours of discussion to reach consensus and decide on the finalists, which were sent on to the board in alphabetical order with no ranking of the three. The two finalists that were not awarded the Pulitzer are both superbly rendered portraits of contemporary American life. Rapture, Blister, Burn is a pungent commentary on women's attitudes toward marriage and careers, as personified by a childless professor and her friend, a homemaker who married the professor's ex-boyfriend and had a child with him. Gionfriddo was a Pulitzer finalist in 2009 for Becky Shaw, which I enjoyed at St. Petersburg's Free- fall Theatre last season. Herzog's 4000 Miles is about a spiky encounter between a 91-year-old leftist and her questing 21-year-old grandson, fresh from a cross-country bike trip.

All along I figured Disgraced could be the favorite of the finalists, not only because it is a sharp, well-constructed play but also because of its topicality and news value. It tells the story of a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer, and lapsed Muslim, and the unhappy consequences of his reluctant involvement in the case of an imam accused of raising money for terrorists.

Akhtar, an American of Pakistani descent himself, created a complex, brilliantly divided character in Amir, the lawyer whose marriage and career are ruined amid the wreckage of a chic Upper East Side dinner party gone horribly wrong when the chitchat strays into a savage discussion of politics and religion. The Lincoln Center production featured Aasif Mandvi, the University of South Florida graduate and mock commentator on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, as Amir, whose dinnertime dialogue escalates from a critique of "underrated" Spanish wine and appreciation for $600 Charvet shirts (with their "ridiculous thread count") to combustible assessments of the Koran as "one very long hate mail letter to humanity" and his ambivalence about 9/11.

Before the salad is served Amir bluntly recounts that, as a person of Middle Eastern appearance, he is resigned to the "nightmare" of airport security. In what his wife regards as "pure, unmitigated passive-aggression," he even volunteers himself to be inspected. After all, he says, "The next terrorist attack is probably gonna come from some guy who more or less looks like me."

Disgraced is not without flaws. It culminates in a brutal episode between Amir and his wife, Emily, a white American artist who uses Islamic imagery in her work, that goes way over the top. The dinner party guest list is conveniently diverse for purposes of the play's incendiary outcome, including an African-American lawyer in Amir's firm, Jory, and her boyfriend, Isaac, a Jewish art curator. But the intelligence and fluency of the writing by Akhtar, also a novelist (American Dervish) and screenwriter, never falters.

When the Pulitzers were announced on April 15, there was a tragic irony in the drama winner. Just as Disgraced was named that afternoon, the news broke that two bombs had exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Akhtar's play was more timely than ever as details began to emerge.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

Reading — not seeing — plays as part of Pulitzer drama jury is unique experience 05/03/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 3, 2013 6:49pm]

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