Shows Worth Seeing:
By Ayad Akhtar
149 W. 45th St.
Where would American drama be without the topical button-pushing play? From Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (interracial marriage) to God of Carnage (misogyny/homophobia) to O Beautiful (abortion) we’ve long enjoyed watching middle-class social gatherings like those we regularly attend sensationally wrecked by escalating arguments about controversial current issues. That Disgraced belongs to this subgenre shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing it, because it’s the sharpest and most intelligently provocative such play to come along in years. Ayad Akhtar knows his emotional triggers and sets them expertly to ignite a chain of dramatic IEDs.
The central character is a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer (Amir, played by Hari Dhillon) who long ago rejected the Muslim religion as “backward” and hateful and is cheerfully climbing his firm’s ladder. His wife is a gorgeous, blue-blood painter (Emily, played by Gretchen Mol) who incorporates Islamic themes into her abstract work and who heedlessly prods him into attending a hearing for an Imam their ardent nephew (Abe, played by Danny Ashok) believes has been unjustly imprisoned. Amir’s reluctant appearance at the hearing—reported in the New York Times—has grievous consequences, damaging his position at work and setting in motion a string of confrontations and revelations that end up destroying his marriage and his sense of identity.
The cast also includes a smug Whitney curator with the hots for Emily—who is married a little too conveniently to Amir’s law colleague—which spices the drama nicely with infidelity and a debate about opportunistic interculturalism. Because the law colleague is a black woman the climactic altercation also exposes a disturbing clash between two sorts of racial profiling. The main tension, though, comes from the corrosive effect of America’s anti-Islamic paranoia on unwittingly self-hating Amir. That in itself is sufficiently powerful that it outweighs the play’s egregious plausibility problems: e.g. the contrived connections among the couples, and that utterly conventional Emily resembles a Park Avenue nitwit more than a cutting-edge artist.
The actors’ performances are for the most part hard-driving and spot-on, as director Kimberly Senior keeps things moving breathlessly along. The Broadway audience is visibly restless and uneasy when the curtain falls after 85 minutes—high praise for a play whose aim is very plainly to disturb.