When Amir was a child, he spit in the face of a Jewish classmate, a girl he had a crush on, he says in “Disgraced,” Ayad Akhtar’s bluntly provocative play that has now opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Amir is explaining to his nephew that he had been imitating his Pakistani-born mother, who had spit in his face when she discovered an affectionate note the girl had written to him in class. “You will end up with a Jew over my dead body,” his mother had said to him.
Now Amir is a successful, hard-charging corporate attorney in New York working for a largely Jewish law firm. He has angrily rejected the Islamic religion of his childhood because of attitudes like his mother’s, changed his name so it is not recognizably Muslim or Pakistani, and married a white woman – not a Jew but a blonde WASP.
His wife, Emily, is an artist who not only incorporates motifs from Islamic art into her paintings but defends Islam from her husband’s attacks. She also inadvertently sets into motion the two plot lines that climax, at a dinner party with another couple, in the most explosive surprises of the play (which I refuse to give away.)
It is easy to argue that the playwright exerts an almost mathematical craftiness in his work: His wily navigation through charged terrain includes putting the anti-Muslim arguments into the mouth of the Muslim character, and giving the non-Muslims the reasonable counter-arguments.
But it is hard to dispute that “Disgraced, which debuted at Lincoln Center’s experimental LCT3 two years ago, introduces a fresh and important new voice to the American stage; the play is in my view deserving of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that it won. What makes this all the more astonishing is that “Disgraced” was the first play Ayad Akhtar ever wrote (after twenty years of writing fiction and screenplays.) He’s already on his third play, The Invisible Hand, which opens December 8 at New York Theater Workshop.
Akhtar does not shy away from the kind of in-your-face beliefs that confront us daily in the world outside the theater, and that have even escalated into even greater relevance since its Off-Broadway production; he includes a character (Amir’s nephew) who credibly voices the extremist views of some Muslims. There are fierce debates about Islamic terrorism and of Islam itself. But what he has created is not just a needed exploration of an urgent clash of world views, but a deeply satisfying dramatic experience.
And, in the Broadway production directed by Kimberly Senior, he has lots of help in making that happen.
Hari Dhillon portrays Amir as somebody who has donned the identity of an arrogant corporate player in order to shield himself from the resentments and vulnerabilities of his ethnic identity. As the play progresses, we see his ambivalence and internal conflicts apparently more clearly than he does. Gretchen Mol,who was so dazzling as Gillian Darmody in the just-completed HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” is completely transformed as Amir’s demur, intelligent, well-meaning blonde wife Emily. Similarly, Josh Radnor, who played Ted Mosby for nine years on the CBS series “How I Met Your Mother,” is unrecognizable as Isaac, the bearded Jewish museum curator who is interested in Emily’s art work — and in Emily. He is persuasive as he turns from nerdy and complacent to enraged. Karen Pittman, the only one of the actors who is a holdover from the Off-Broadway production, makes the most of her role as Jory, who is Isaac’s wife and Amir’s colleague — and, as it turns out, rival — at the law firm. That Isaac is Jewish and Jory African-American adds another (crafty) layer to Akhtar’s exploration of ethnic identities and tensions. Rounding out the cast is Danny Ashok as Abe, Amir’s nephew, who has changed his name from Hussein, but, by the end of the play, changes it back.
John Lee Beatty’s set and Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costumes establish the outwardly comfortable life of these affluent residents of the Upper East Side. There is never a feeling that the play is satirizing these characters, even when Emily is serving a fennel and anchovy salad or chirping with Isaac about the London art scene. But what “Disgraced” does do, smoothly and theatrically, is confront us one by one with our assumptions and pieties about the culture clash that is defining our era.
At the Lyceum Theater (148 West 45th Street)
By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior; sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting by Kenneth Posner; sound by Jill BC Du Boff.
Cast: Hari Dhillon (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Danny Ashok (Abe) and Karen Pittman (Jory).
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $37.50 – $138.00
Disgraced is scheduled to run through February 15, 2015