As bad as her dinner parties always were on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Moore had nothing on Amir Kapoor, who hosts a cozy gathering in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, now playing at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. A successful lawyer of Indian and Pakistani descent, Amir (played by Hari Dhillon) is bucking for a partnership but worries that his Arab-sounding name and tenuous connection to a jailed imam have put him on the firm’s uh-oh list. His blonde wife Emily (Gretchen Mol), a budding artist, proves supportive, but she may be more entranced by the exoticism of his heritage than of his proudly American, upwardly mobile lifestyle.
Invited to dinner are Jory (Karen Pittman), a black coworker at Amir’s firm, and her husband, Isaac (Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother), a Jewish art dealer with an interest in Emily’s work and, possibly, Emily. Fireworks ensue, with Amir finding himself not only betrayed but stunned that his assimilated status—and dislike of most things Islamic—don’t shield him from prejudice.
Disgraced moves swiftly and keeps audiences buzzing. The show’s clash of cultural norms with under-the-surface discontent made the play a natural for last year’s Pulitzer Prize and also brought a sprinkling of Middle-Eastern faces to the aisles—refreshing, considering that Broadway’s usual Semitic contingent is composed of a rather different tribe.
The shock of Disgraced however, lies not its courage in tackling issues like Sept 11 and Islamophobia, but in its almost relentlessly negative view of Arab and Muslim culture. Amir says little about Islam that isn’t poisonous and his toxicity goes off the charts once his career and marriage are threatened. Dark themes are not unusual in a drama, but author Akhtar goes even further, having Amir explode and exhibit the worst aspects of the very background he’s trying to suppress. It’s as if the playwright agrees with his protagonist’s belief that hateful behavior is somehow ingrained in Muslim DNA.
Akhtar admitted in a 2014 interview that his writing influences include Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. As such, I suppose that if men from Mars came down to explore Times Square this season, and they caught Nathan Lane in It’s Only a Play and Akhtar’s Disgraced, they’d be in the odd position of seeing Broadway’s most brilliant Jewish comedian and most probing Jewish playwright, neither of whom is Jewish.
Yes, Disgraced pushes its share of easy buttons, and the matinee crowd with which I saw the play proved risible when gasping audibly at melodramatic tropes that were old in Aeschylus’s day. However, mercifully, Akhtar is no obfuscating Albee or convoluting Kushner. His themes are clear, his plot coheres and, most importantly, he keeps a viewer wondering what shoe will drop next. No, Akhtar hasn’t penned The Great Muslim Play; he’s simply created an absorbing, lively evening at the theater. And there’s no disgrace in that.