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Ayad Akhtar’s searing Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, which had its New York premiere in 2012 at Lincoln Center’s tiny 131-seat Claire Tow Theater, has made a terrifically successful transition to Broadway’s 950-seat Lyceum Theatre. Akhtar’s poignant and powerful drama about identity and racism feels right at home on the Great White Way, led by a strong cast, smart, energetic direction, and razor-sharp dialogue. Hari Dhillon stars as Amir Kapoor, a bold corporate lawyer who is hiding his Pakistani background to help him rise in his firm. His wife, Emily (Gretchen Mol), is a white painter using Islamic imagery in her work. Jewish curator Isaac (Josh Radnor) is considering including some of Emily’s canvases in an important upcoming show. Isaac is married to Jory (Karen Pittman), a black lawyer who works with Amir. Problems arise when Amir’s nephew, Pakistani-born Abe (Danny Ashok), who changed his name from Hussein in order to fit in better in America, asks his uncle to meet with his imam, who has been imprisoned for suspected ties to terrorism. At first, Amir resists becoming involved, but Emily helps convince him that it’s the right thing to do. Yet Amir’s attendance at a hearing for the imam is a serious mistake, setting in motion a cascade of events that culminates in a dinner party where all of the characters let loose on one another in a ricochet of revelations that surprises even themselves.
As Disgraced opens, Emily is painting a portrait of Amir inspired by Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, his slave of Moorish descent, immediately setting up the ethnocentric boundaries the play investigates. Dhillon, who starred in the West End production (the role was originated in Chicago by Usman Ally and in New York by The Daily Show’s Asif Maandvi), plays Amir with a fire building in his belly, ready to explode at any minute. Mol is warm and appealing as Emily, who might not really understand her deep-down motivations, serving as a kind of onstage stand-in for the liberal Caucasians who tend to populate Broadway theaters. Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and Pittman (the only returning member from the LCT3 cast) do a splendid job playing a couple representing social factions that do not always get along very well, Jews and blacks. (Think Crown Heights, for example.) And in the middle of it all is Ashok as Abe/Hussein, debating the ultimate value of assimilation and its cost. John Lee Beatty’s Upper East Side apartment set is elegant and welcoming, even as the story turns angry, and Senior (Akhtar’s The Who & the What, 4000 Miles) keeps it all moving smoothly through a fast-paced eighty-five intermissionless minutes. Disgraced is one of those plays that hits you in the gut, forcing you to look inside yourself at your own biases and predispositions, and it’s not necessarily a pretty picture. The Staten Island-born Akhtar is clearly a writer to watch; he has also written a novel (American Dervish) and acted in several films, including one that he cowrote and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay. His follow-up play, The Invisible Hand, begins previews November 19 at New York Theatre Workshop.