There are some topics you just shouldn’t discuss at a dinner party. Religion, race, politics — it’s probably good to avoid these controversial matters altogether, and focus on more agreeable subjects. Like the weather.
Perhaps if the two couples in “Disgraced” would have taken that advice, they would have avoided a whole lot of trouble and pain. Then again, if the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar, now open at the Lyceum Theatre, stayed away from such discourse, we wouldn’t have been treated to one of the season’s most engaging nights of theater.
At the center of the intense debate sits Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon), a Manhattan corporate lawyer on the brink of a partner promotion who has long left his Muslim upbringing behind. Dismissing his religion as “a backward way of thinking and being,” Amir goes as far as telling his firm he’s from India rather than Pakistan so that he’s not associated with any stigma his birth country might have in the modern world today.
But no matter how much Amir tries to walks away from his past, he can’t seem to escape the responsibilities — and implications — it brings. He’s not helped by the people closest to him, who seem hell bent on perpetuating debate and involvement in the issue. There’s his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol, of TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”), an up-and-coming artist whose work is highly influenced by Islamic art. And there’s his cousin Abe (Danny Ashok), a 20-something born under the name Hussein Malik who isn’t afraid to remind Amir where he came from.
Both Emily and Abe urge Amir to get involved in a case pertaining to the arrest of a local imam, who they feel is being unjustly persecuted. Although reluctant to support him, Amir does so out of respect for his loved ones — unaware that his appearance in court will have a permanent effect on his reputation and career.
It does, and the consequences become clear at a dinner party Amir and Emily host at their Upper East Side apartment for Amir’s African-American colleague Jory (Karen Pittman) and her Jewish husband Isaac (Josh Radnor, of TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”), an art curator working with Emily. As the diverse foursome discuss the taboo topics of religion, race and politics, tempers rise. The conversation becomes more fiery. Secrets are revealed. And by the end, almost everyone is left in ruin.
It’s easily the most impassioned dinner scenes on Broadway since “August: Osage County,” and one that playwright Akhtar crafts beautifully. His dialogue is intelligent and superb — his characters so complex yet well-defined — that you’ll travel along the ride of emotions and ideas not knowing where you’re going next. And like any good roller coaster, the final drop will leave your heart in the pit of your stomach.
The ride is effectively managed by director Kimberly Senior, who has directed two other productions of “Disgraced” — one at the American Theater Company and another, in 2012, at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater. She keeps the action moving along swiftly through John Lee Beatty’s beautifully intricate set design.
As our main protagonist, Dhillon is particularly good as Amir, layering his character’s confidence with irritability and paranoia. With each sip of scotch Amir takes throughout the evening, Dhillon reveals more and more of his character’s struggles. It’s clear Amir’s decision to walk away from his past wasn’t easy, and the guilt and frustration he feels is only manifested in internal and external anger. It’s a complicated and honest portrayal of a character that could so easily be villainized, and one that Dhillon executes flawlessly.
The rest of the cast are equally strong. Mol gives Emily the sincerity and openness she needs, grounding us throughout most of the turmoil. Ashkok takes Abe on an energetic and heartfelt journey. Radnor’s Isaac is smug and condescending — a perfect sparring partner for Dhillon. And Pittman, the only holdover from LCT3’s production, is commanding as Jory, and will have your trust from her first line spoken.
There’s a lot to unpack in “Disgraced,” and with only one act clocking in at less than 90 minutes, you’ll walk out wanting to continue the debate with those around you. These are complex ideas. Self-identity and race. Tolerance and pride. How terrorism has affected public prejudice towards Islamics. Just be careful not to get too personal. Because as we’ve learned, such discussions don’t always end well.
“Disgraced,” at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th St. Tickets: $37.50 - $138. Call Telecharge (212) 239-6200.