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A CurtainUp Review

L-R:Gretchen Mol,Hari Dhillon, Karen Pittman and Josh Radnor (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced is the kind of significantly timely, issue oriented play that the Pulitzer Prize committee seems to love. It certainly gave them plenty to love: Cultural identity, color and culturally diverse marriages, terrorism, religious beliefs, social and career ladder climbing. . . and for a dash of added spice, adultery.

The cornucopia of big themes is dished up along with fennel and anchovy salad at the dinner party that's the pivotal event in Ahktar's 2012 play. An accomplished cast and the way the script zipped along with dramatic intensity towards its sure-to-shock climax was apparently enough to make the Pulitzer Committee, as well as critics like our own Simon Saltzman* who saw the New York premiere at Lincoln Center's tiny Claire Tow Theater overlook the overly schematic setup and plot holes. Understandably so, given that it's something of a dramatic sleight of hand to entertainingly dramatize all these potentially controversial themes — and do so in just 85 minutes.

Glowing from all these accolades, Disgraced has now arrived on Broadway. This is good news since the Chicago and off-Broadway premieres reached so few audiences hungry for serious, relevant plays.

Though just one original cast member is on board, Kimberly Senior is again with the production to steer the excellent current cast through the high-speed, highly charged events. In deference to the Broadway location that master of classy decor, John Lee Beatty, has furnished the upper East Side apartment where even banana pudding can't sweeten the erupting hostilities among two power couples that's fueled by interconnected events and too much liquor.

The stories dominating the headlines and TV news broadcasts since the play's 2012 run are likely to make it even more disturbingly relevant — perhaps too much so. Not having seen the Lincoln Center production, I was certainly happy to have a chance to see whether it still lived up to its highly praised, Pulitzer winning reception.

Disgraced is indeed a deftly scripted, attention-holding little drama exploring the fire cracker emotions lurking beneath marriages and friendships formed across cultural differences. But I use that "little" adjective deliberately. While you'll have to look far to find a play that packs so many well worth exploring issues into a highly dramatic single act, for me those issues upstaged the characters. I consequently found it hard to ignore the contrivances used for this convivial get-together of two power couples to evolve into an ever more disturbing erosion of civility.

Sure, there's a lot to think about here, and the dramatic arc hints at a kinship to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But with one exception, the people at this dinner table are insufficiently developed to warrant a place in the canon of memorable characters like George and Martha and Honey and Nick.

What we have is a watchable play but one that's over-dependent on happenstance to stir up the carefully buried self-doubts, resentments and prejudices simmering beneath these cross-culturally connected relationships. Hostess Emily (Gretchen Mol) is a white, Anglo-Saxon American, her husband Amir(Hari Dhillon) is a naturalized American, born in Pakistan and raised as a Muslim; Isaac (Josh Radnor), one of the guests is Jewish, and his wife Jory (Karen Pittman) is African-American.

As it happens, the foursome's careers are also conveniently inter-connected: Amir, the main and most fleshed out character, has bought into the American dream as a successful corporate lawyer in a Jewish run firm where he expects to be made partner soon. He's completely abandoned his background and is driven enough by ambition to let his bosses think he's from India which they're likely to find more acceptable than Pakistan. Emily is an artist whose marriage to Amir has led to what turns out to be a career-boosting use of courtesy of her convenient friendship with Isaac who happens to be a museum art curator. As Emily and Isaac are colleagues, so are Amir and Jory who's not just another American dream pursuing lawyer, but working in the same firm as Amir.

To add to the post-show discussion potential, there's Amir's one remaining connection to his Pakistan roots, his nephew Abe (Danny Ashok). While Abe is as determinedly assimilated as his uncle (to wit, he's discarded his birth name, Hussein Malik), he's become involved in efforts to free a local Imam he feels has been unjustly charged with raising money for Hamas. Though more off than on stage, Abe's getting his uncle to show up at the Imam's trial turns out to trigger events that cause Amir to be too drunk and upset to be his usual charming and self-controlled self at the dinner party.

As I already said, the current cast is excellent. Hari Dhillon, who played Amir in the London production ( review ) conveys Amir's charm, ambition and disintegrating self-control with impressive nuance. Karen Pittman, the only holdover from the previous Off-Broadway production, brings sleek sophistication to the role of Amir's fellow lawyer — even though by the part the party has exploded it's hard to believe that her character wouldn't find some excuse to not come to the dinner. Gretchen Moll and Josh Radnor play their parts without spoiling the surprise of their own little secret.

If these weren't fictional characters there's a chance that Danny Ashok's final brief appearance might have a few protesters show up outside the Lyceum carrying posters accusing Disgraced of rationalizing the increasing number of young Muslim-Americans becoming potential candidates for terrorist organizations' recruitment efforts (shades of those recently protesting The Death of Klinghoffer, the opera about an actual terrorist killing).

But Disgraced IS fiction. And its use of the facts of our current life styles and concerns does make for an often gripping theatrical outing.

* Simon Saltzman's review of the Off-Broadway production

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
Direted by Kimberly Senior
Cast: Hari Dhillon a (Amir), Gretchen Mol (Emily), Karen Pittman (Jory), Josh Radnor (Isaac), Danny Ashok (Abe)
Set: John Lee Beatty
Costumes: Jennifer Von Maryhauser
Lighting: Ken Posner
Sound: Jill DuBoff
Stage Manager: William Joseph Barnes
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street.
From 9/27/14; opening 10/23/14; closing 3/01/15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 19th press preview
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