Ayad Akhtar’s topical play Disgraced, the worthy winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, continues a long tradition of theater that explores the costs of assimilation for minority groups in the great American melting pot. In this case, we get an engaging snapshot of the challenge for upwardly mobile Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 age. At the show’s center is Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon), a Pakistani-American mergers & acquisitions lawyer living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his blonde wife, Emily (Boardwalk Empire‘s Gretchen Mol). Amir is a man of complications and contradictions. He’s rejected his Muslim upbringing (and even his surname) to better blend into American society and get ahead at his law firm, but he still feels the occasional tug of his Islamic upbringing—if only to consciously reject it. And his wife, a painter who’s drawn to the rich traditions of Islamic art, nudges Amir to more openly embrace the heritage that serves as her artistic muse.
But when she cajoles Amir into attending a hearing for his nephew’s imam, jailed on perhaps trumped-up charges of financing terrorist-supporting groups, the resulting publicity leads to sharp consequences—and his standing at his firm takes a serious nosedive. Akhtar piles on additional conflicts, both domestic and professional, culminating in a fraught dinner party with Emily’s Jewish art dealer, Isaac (How I Met Your Mother alum Josh Radnor), and Isaac’s African American wife, Jory (Karen Pittman), a lawyer in Amir’s firm who’s also vying for partnership. In another great theater tradition, tempers flare and people say things that they probably wish could be un-said.
Akhtar packs a lot into his scenes, in terms of both coincidence-heavy personal drama and talky disquisitions on religion and politics, but he usually manages to pull back from the edge of too-muchness. Director Kimberly Senior, who also helmed the 2012 Off Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center Theater’s Off Broadway Claire Tow Theater, shows an admirable restraint in her well-paced scenes.
But that production had an ace in the hole in Daily Show regular Aasif Mandvi, who brought a pent-up energy to Amir that made his climactic outburst late in the show seem plausible, if not inevitable. Dhillon, an American-born actor who’s spent much of his career working in the U.K., shows more stiff-upper-lip reserve in the early scenes, merely pacing and fidgeting to signal Amir’s discomfort in his own skin. It’s an approach that doesn’t go far enough to establish Amir’s coiled volatility. The rest of the cast seem more attuned to the demands of the material; Mol in particular radiates a sensuous intelligence that is enormously appealing.
This is one of the rare plays that one wishes were longer. Akhtar covers a lot of ground in just under 90 minutes in both plot and thought-provoking themes and ideas—and perhaps as a result, his ending still seems a bit underdeveloped and tossed-off. It’s as if he didn’t want to dwell too long on the crash site he had orchestrated for his flawed and deeply human characters. B+
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