How much are we defined by our race or religion, not to mention our social status? And how much does it matter what we do to escape it, ignore it or avoid it? Those are just some of the provocative questions being asked by playwright Ayad Akhtar’s in Disgraced, his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama now at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, two years after its New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theatre. If Akthar doesn’t have all the answers, and if his set-up to finding them is somewhat schematic, that doesn’t mean that audience members who are willing to tackle these subjects should run away from facing the tough truth about the world and themselves.
The work focuses on Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon), a highly successful corporate lawyer who has acquired a spacious Upper East Side apartment (beautifully designed by John Lee Beatty) and an equally beautiful wife named Emily (Gretchen Mol), a well-meaning if slightly naïve artist who has developed a newfound interest in Islam and its artistic traditions.
In fact, this recent passion has led her to urge Amir to join his nephew Abe (a very fine Danny Ashok) in trying to free an imam who has been accused of terrorism. While he gives into Emily, this action brings both Amir’s hatred of his native religion and his long-buried self-hatred to the forefront. (Amir has not just changed his surname to appear Indian rather than Muslim, but essentially renounced the Islamic faith into which he was born.) It’s an action that also ultimately affects Amir’s position at his Jewish-led law firm, as well as his seemingly secure marriage.
Indeed, many of Amir’s long-buried issues erupt during a gathering that he and Emily have chosen to throw – despite its bad timing – for their close friends Isaac (Josh Radnor), a nerdy, slightly smug Jewish art curator who is considering putting Emily’s paintings into his latest show, and his wife Jory (Karen Pittman), a smart, sharp-witted African-American attorney who is Amir’s best friend at his law firm.
One of the biggest flaws with Disgraced is how it seemingly takes just a little Scotch (especially on Amir’s part) and a few nasty remarks for this seemingly amiable gathering to become a racially charged mini-war. This climactic scene, as well as those leading up to it, needs to be fleshed out further to be completely credible.
Director Kimberly Senior has changed up the cast considerably from the LCT3 production, with mixed results. Dhillon, who played Amir in the show’s British production, has a kind of innate self-confidence that his predecessor Aasif Mandvi lacked, as well as a likeable, level-headed quality that makes his seemingly irrational acts during the party sufficiently surprising. Yet Mandvi was, in his way, more sympathetic. Meanwhile, Mol (in the part originated by Heidi Armbruster) is fine, if slightly too bland, as Emily, and has only minimal chemistry with Dillon.
On the plus side, I liked Radnor a zillion times better than Erik Jensen in the same part at LCT3. Although his Isaac is slightly arrogant from the moment we meet him, we are still surprised at how vitriolic he becomes when he lets his true colors show, and attacks Amir with a disgusting gesture and racial slur. For her part, Pittman – the lone holdover from the LCT3 cast – delivers a superbly calibrated turn as the truth-telling Jory. This stunning actress gains both major laughs with her zingy remarks (mostly aimed at her husband), but is equally fine when called upon to hand Amir his dramatic “death blow.”
While it’s a mere 90 minutes long, Disgraced will likely keep you talking about it – and thinking about it – for much longer than that.