New York City Theater
Two couples converge for a convivial dinner party: a former Muslim and his “beautiful white American wife,” a Jewish man and his African-American wife. What sounds like the set-up for a joke about four friends walking into a bar soon turns menacing and violent.
That old saw about not talking about religion, race or politics is ignored to everyone’s peril in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” last year’s Pulitzer Prize play now in a tense, blistering Broadway production. Starting amiably with a man, Amir, sitting for a portrait by his artist wife, Emily, it ends in despair and isolation. It also raises one of the biggest questions of our times: How Am I Defined -- by my individuality, my tribe, country, profession – or what?
In a deceptive setting (what the program lists as “a spacious apartment on New York’s Upper East Side”), that promises a tête-à-tête among two civilized, well-off couples, Amir, an American of Indian descent, and Emily prepare for a dinner party with museum curator Isaac and his wife, the accomplished Jory. The couples are tied in various ways: Amir and Jory work together in a prestigious law firm while Isaac has agreed to show Emily’s works, with their Islamic influence, in his museum. (“Islam is part of who we are,” says Emily.)
There’s a fifth character, the ointment’s fly. That’s Abe, Amir’s nephew, who changed his name from Hussein, putting him on the path to assimilation. Both Emily and Abe try to convince the reluctant Amir to visit an imam accused of sending money to Hamas. The consequences are destructive.
Prejudices undermine all the characters. The veneer of civilization that has protected them turns out to be superficial and thin. When forced, they fall back (for safety? for comfort? for assurance?) on their upbringings. (“It’s tribal,” says Amir, “it is in the bones.”)
“Disgraced” is as much an evening of surprise as it is of politesse. What starts as something of a polemic becomes, like life, a cesspool of ambivalent motivations, thwarted ambitions and elusive reality. At this world juncture of terrorism and fear, of people roused to extremes, the play has no easy answers.
Yet the production is clear and perceptive. Hari Dhillon is a rock-solid Amir, always poised as if to explode, his outward hauteur covering a multitude of insecurities. Josh Radnor’s Isaac matches him in centuries-old seething. Gretchen Mol is the peace-keeper, the dutiful wife with issues of her own and Karen Pittman is a blunt and forcible Jory. As Abe, Danny Ashok, though burdened with delivering “the message,” finds the character’s righteousness.
Director Kimberly Senior balances the play’s swift yet subtle swings between cordiality and rage. This is an unsettling play which plumbs questions of identity, loyalty and the inescapability of the past. Talking about such issues, it says, is dangerous but necessary. The conversation continues.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 3, 2014