When Jewish-American art dealer Isaac asks Pakistani-American corporate lawyer Amir “Did you feel pride on Sept. 11?” and gets the hesitant answer, “Yes,” everything shifts for the two couples at the center of Ayad Akhtar’s trenchant and treacherous new play “Disgraced.” That Amir immediately conveys his horror at this instinctual response ameliorates nothing. Akhtar digs deep to confront uncomfortable truths about the ways we look at race, culture, class, religion, and sex in this bracingly adult, unflinching drama, part of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 project for nurturing new writers.
Confident, hard-charging Amir—an articulate apostate from Islam, which he denigrates as “a backward way of thinking”—works alongside Jory, Isaac’s brainy and beautiful African-American wife, at a high-end Manhattan law firm. Amir’s wife, the blond, gorgeous, and empathetic Emily, is a painter whose work has recently taken a new turn due to her discovery of Islamic art. Isaac is considering giving Emily a show at his gallery. All four are also friends. When Amir, at his Muslim nephew’s request and Emily’s insistence, assists an imam unjustly accused of soliciting funds for al-Qaida, it jeopardizes his chances of making partner at his firm, something he doesn’t tell Emily. At a dinner party in Amir and Emily’s elegant Upper East Side apartment, intended as a celebration of Isaac’s decision to exhibit Emily’s paintings, liquor loosens tongues, political arguments get heated, and personal betrayals come to light as four lives are shattered.
Akhtar writes incisive, often quite funny dialogue and creates vivid characters, managing to cover a lot of ground in a mere four scenes and 80 minutes. There is the occasional awkward use of exposition, and his climactic revelations teeter into melodrama, but these are minor flaws.
Kimberly Senior directs with speed and subtlety. The terrific Aasif Mandvi has one of his best roles in Amir and seizes it. He stresses Amir’s sense of otherness and need to be accepted, mixing machismo with sensitivity and using Amir’s intelligence and passion to generate sympathy for this complicated, driven man. Heidi Armbruster is a radiant Emily, compelling in her love for her husband and convincing as an insecure but committed artist. A late addition to the company, Erik Jensen is on his game as Isaac, giving him an intriguing combination of nerdy intellectuality and testosterone-fueled bullishness. Though she only gets one scene, Karen Pittman is memorable as Jory, commanding and caustic without ever compromising a fetching femininity. Omar Maskati makes the most of his smaller role as Amir’s nephew, expertly taking hold of the script’s disquieting final scene.
It’s great to see a play about an artist that actually allows us to see the art, and kudos to set designer Lauren Helpern for her persuasive realization of Emily’s canvases. Dane Laffrey (costumes), Tyler Micoleau (lighting), and Jill BC Du Boff (sound) also do top-notch work.
Akhtar doesn’t offer any solutions to the thorny issues he presents so effectively. What he does is require us to engage them, and that’s a very good and necessary thing.
Presented by LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater, by arrangement with the Araca Group, as part of the Steinberg New Works Program at the Claire Tow Theater, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Oct. 22–Dec. 23. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Caparelliotis Casting.
Critic's Score: B+