If you’ve been too obsessed with what’s going on in the world to notice that Ayad Akhtar won an Obie for this, his play, Disgraced, in 2012, you’ll have to take notice now that it won the Pulitzer Prize as well and is on Broadway, and you’ll really have to sit up and take notice because it’s all about what’s going on in the world right now. It’s so beautifully directed by Kimberly Senior – also first time on Broadway – that you become involved with each of the people you meet in the play and that is an awakening experience.
Because tall, dark, matinee idol handsome, smokin’ hot lawyer, Amir (exciting Hari Dhillon, another Broadway debut!), is going places, completely American though born in India, he says – or maybe it was Pakistan? –, married to very blonde, fragile Emily, a gifted painter (lovely Gretchen Mol), a WASP born and bred. They are a stunning couple. She’s making sketches for a portrait. He’s posing, in fashion plate shirt, tie, jacket, cell phone at the ready. No pants. It adds a fillip. Their best friends, rumpled Isaac (splendid Josh Radnor), a seasoned art curator who admires Emily’s work, and Jory, his svelte wife (superb Karen Pittman), an associate in Amir’s law firm, are coming to dinner. Does it matter that Isaac is Jewish? We’re way too cool. Or his wife, Jory, is African American? Too cool, too cool. They’re all of them moneyed New Yorkers of the same upward striver class together living the beautiful life.
But Amir’s adoring young relative (brilliant Danny Ashok) needs his adored Amir to help him help his local imam who has been accused by the FBI of funneling funds to Hamas, when he’s really a sweet old man trying to help his people. Amir, on the fast track to a partnership in his law firm, does not want to get involved but his Emily persuades him and darling Emily has been so good at embracing so much of his Islamic heritage.
Disaster follows upon disaster. Amir comes home, straight to the drinks cabinet. He’d been right. The imam arrest made the papers and Amir came out painted like one of those radical sympathizers. His boss Mort did not like it at all. Suddenly, the firm’s brass were suspicious of him. Two drinks later, his tongue loosened, he can’t be pacified by Emily. All the suppressed years, the suppressed anger is talking. He tells Emily of an episode twenty-five years ago. He had a girlfriend in school. They were eight years old. Her name was Rivka. He looked forward to seeing her every day. His mother said to him Rivka is a Jewish name. You do not talk to a Jew. You spit in his face. And his mother spat in his face. To teach him that lesson. The next day, in school, Amir spat in Rivka’s face. And now, his Jewish law firm is spitting on him.
Things go rapidly down hill when Isaac and Jory arrive. Jory has something to tell Amir. She and Amir run a brief errand. To buy celebratory champagne. Really, as Isaac informs Emily, it’s to tell Amir as gently as possible that Jory has made partner, not Amir. And when a steaming Amir and uneasy Jory return to find Isaac and Emily in an embrace, the dam bursts.
Insults fly, Jory and Isaac are driven away and hapless Emily, caught in the moment, confesses to having slept with Isaac in Paris. Amir goes berserk.
Director Senior has developed their relationships and interactions so empathically that one thing leads to another with harrowing inevitability. It’s as if she and her marvelous cast and Ayad Akhtar’s play have become one entity, even as all of them, Amir, Emily, Isaac, Jory, even Abe, come apart. Abe – he’s really Hussein but he tried being American – is crushed by what happened. And now the Feds are after him? They hate us. They want to keep us down. We were the great ones three hundred years ago and we’re going to get it all back. The whole world will be Muslim.
Too much violent emotion has been generated in the air around them. And us. Anti-Muslim fear and suspicion keeps building, feeding on itself until anti-Semitism smolders into flame and racism’s curse bursts out. The beautiful life? It’s a veneer. The hatreds inculcated in childhood poison our present days. Playwright Akhtar nails us. And gives us no solutions. The front edge of the coming darkness already falling over Europe is arriving as Akhtar bleakly stabs us with his brilliant shaft of a play. On our present course there is no way but down.
Dhillon commands the stage from first to last in his many layered, electric portrayal of a man whose twisted childhood cannot be ignored. Mol makes a perfect foil as Emily, secure in her privileged life, seeking the beauty in Mohammedanism. Pittman, the sleekly exhausted Yuppy grown comfortable in her tawny skin, turns savage when the coating of civility is rent and old scars are torn away. Radnor plays Isaac with such easy comfort that the conversion from gentle, funny best friend to bristling, battling warrior is unnerving. And Ashok’s young, trusting idolizing Abe becoming a wounded, raging radical, all hatreds to the fore.
That such a devastating scramble of lives can happen in as handsome a setting as John Lee Beatty, magic set designer, manages to evoke, heightens the irony of what takes place there. The rest of the superb production is of equal caliber: Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s so right costuming, Kenneth Posner’s so apt lighting, Jill BC Cu Boff’s sound. But is this who we are? Where do we go from here? You don’t want to miss Disgraced. How are you going to know what the title means?
Disgraced (through March 1, 2015)
Lincoln Center Theater production
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.disgraceonbroadway.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission