Report From New York: Scorching Disgraced Is Classic Thought-Provoking Theater

The calm before the storm in Disgraced with  Gretchen Mol, Hari Dhillon, Karen Pittman and Josh Radnor / Photo by Joan Marcus

The calm before the storm in Disgraced with Gretchen Mol, Hari Dhillon, Karen Pittman and Josh Radnor / Photo by Joan Marcus

We’re back from our semi-annual trip to New York to scout out productions you might want to see (or not), shows that might tour South Florida and scripts that might be worth reviving in our regional theaters. We will run them intermittently over the next week.

By Bill Hirschman

South Floridians, especially Jews and Hispanics, superimpose their personal experience when viewing plays and films that examine the difficulties and fragility of cross-cultural assimilation.

But in the past decade and a half, a sub-genre of art tied to the immigrant experience has emerged – that of the first- and second-generation Middle Eastern or East Indian families constructing a new home in this country.

A raft of such plays and playwrights have emerged such as Yussef el Guindi’s Back of the Throat and Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.

The latest addition is Ayad Akhtar whose shattering first play Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 after a run in Chicago, London and Lincoln Center and is now in an open-ended run on Broadway. If you’re in New York, go out of your way to the Lyceum Theatre to catch the superb cast and insightful direction. (Note: Just after we posted this, the producers announced the show is closing March 5 but will tour beginning in November.)

But don’t worry if you’re not travelling soon. It will doubtless play a regional theater somewhere in South Florida before 2015 ends and when it does, do not miss it.

Assimilation, however profoundly it resonates, actually is not the primary thrust of the play. Instead, Disgraced puts four latter-day liberal yuppies from different backgrounds in the crucible of a dinner party among spouses and business associates.

During an evening of gourmet salad and sophisticated banter, the initially invisible fault lines between cultures crack wide open leaving devastation in every direction. It is a scalding rebuke to anyone who thinks that any section of our society has come to an intellectual or emotional homeostasis about social, cultural and geopolitical divisions.

The confrontation occurs in a sun-kissed apartment on the Upper West Side owned by a middle-aged couple out of Vanity Fair: Amir Kapoor, a smoothly handsome mergers and acquisition lawyer American-born and Muslim-raised; and his wife, Emily, an equally gorgeous WASP artist whose work is rooted in her interest in Islamic culture. From all appearances, they are a close and loving couple.

Amir is on the cusp of becoming a partner and Emily is about to have a breakthrough due to Isaac, a Jewish museum curator who wants to exhibit her work at the Whitney. Isaac is also married to Jory, an African-American lawyer who is also an up-and-comer in Amir’s firm. All four are to meet at the Kapoor condo for a dinner.

But a problem emerges. Amir’s assimilated nephew, Abe Jensen (born Hussein Malik in Pakistan) is upset that a local imam has been arrested on what he believes are bogus charges of financing terrorists. Abe contends that it is solely religious persecution. Neither man is especially devout although both were raised in the faith and then let it slide into inconsequentiality. Abe wants Amir to intercede as a lawyer and respected member of the community. Amir balks until Emily prevails on him to help.

But his appearance in court for the imam, solely as moral support, gets mentioned in an article in The New York Times. Serious fallout begins to shred Amir’s career and his relationship with colleagues and neighbors.

Which is when these power couples meet for a prototypical civilized dinner. The talk about Amir’s involvement in the case leads to a broader discussion of Islam itself. Isaac is the one who makes the distinction between the religion and how it has been appropriated by terrorists. Amir is at first highly critical of the faith’s failings, but ends up defending its virtues and accomplishments.

Quickly, buried prejudices erupt. What began as an intellectual dorm room debate billow into an incendiary inferno. It culminates in shocking and thoroughly unexpected violence (the exact nature of which we won’t reveal). The producers of this play are courageous to have remounted this on Broadway because the play’s most inflammatory moment (also which we won’t reveal) is guaranteed to plunge a red hot dagger into the guts of anyone who was living in New York City on 9/11.

Amir is a fascinating creation pieced together by Akhtar, director Kimberly Senior who has helmed productions twice before and lead actor Hari Dhillon who played the part in London. He is a handsome hard-charging Wall Street type indistinguishable from a thousand others except for a slightly darker skin tone. Amir is perfectly coiffed, impeccably dressed and exuding a smile that seems cordial, one that ever the deliverer might think is genuine. But a whiff of guardedness is mixed in, perhaps alert for signs of prejudice. But as the play begins, Amir appears to thinks he (and to some degree society) is past that, at least in his strata of society. After all, he has jettisoned or at least hidden his religious background; his wife is more deeply into Islamic culture than he is.

For a first play, the novelist Akhtar has constructed a Rolex-running piece that deftly sets up a situation and then follows it fearlessly to its logical if catastrophic conclusion. Some critics have faulted its almost schematic arrangement, but folks, it’s theater, not life. Ninety percent of drama is like that if you look hard enough. His dialogue is convincingly naturalistic with few flights of fancy verbiage, but his characters speak with that facile, mildly witty verbal intercourse expected from such players.

The performances in New York are stunning in their effectiveness. Dhillon was note perfect in the linchpin role, but he was matched step by step by the gorgeous golden girl Gretchen Mol (Boardwalk Empire, Bettie Page) as Emily, Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) as Issac, Karen Pittman as Jory, and Danny Ashok as Abe, also a transplant from the London production.

The play only last 90 minutes, but it is an excoriating ride that embodies the idea of thought-provoking theater.

Reviews of other shows we saw in New York:

The Country House click here

The Real Thing click here

You Can’t Take It With You click here

The Last Ship click here

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