It seems that the surest way to win a Pulitzer is to write a comic drama about a bad dinner between couples and preferably one in which, as the night progresses, secrets are revealed. It has worked, albeit with some variations, for Edward Albee, Donald Margulies, and Tracy Letts. And now we can add Ayad Akhtar, whose Disgraced won that honor in 2013. Which doesn’t mean that it’s bad (it isn’t), only that it is staged in well-worn narrative territory.
Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon) is an American, a corporate lawyer, and a Muslim apostate working in a largely Jewish firm in New York. His wife, Emily (Gretchen Mol), is an upcoming painter whose recent work is inspired by Islamic art, much to Amir’s dissatisfaction—in a more forgiving moment, he calls his former religion “a backward way of thinking,” and in a less forgiving one, he accuses it of outright misogyny and totalitarianism, calling the Qur’an “one very long hate mail letter to humanity.” But after reluctantly providing support to an imam accused of fundraising for Hamas, Amir finds himself at risk of losing his job.
One night, he and Emily invite friends over for dinner. Jory (Karen Pittman) is Amir’s co-worker, who may know more about his future at their firm than he does, and her husband, Isaac (Josh Radnor), is a Jewish curator for the Whitney. His next show, Impossible Heroes, will place Emily’s work at its center, which spurs an increasingly drunken conversation about the nature of Islam and of Muslims in America. Amir and Isaac may both casually chow down on chorizo and pork tenderloins, but once things get heated, a “tribal” feeling, one that “is in the bones,” emerges.
Mr. Dhillon, whose lanky figure and gestural acting evokes a young Jeff Goldblum, does an excellent job juggling Amir’s complex feelings of pride, self-loathing, and anger. Mr. Radnor manages to earns his keep even if his presence here reeks of an actor trading celebrity for credibility (and even if he doesn’t seem the slightest bit Jewish), while Ms. Pittman warmly plays the indulgent wife of a pretentious goof. In a particularly good moment, as Isaac begins to explain the title of his show (“It’s been generations and generations of consumerism and cynicism…”), she nestles into her armchair and mutters, “Get comfortable.”
Though several of its moments feel untrue, or at least overstated, Disgraced is a mostly honest work about assimilation and co-existence, one that dares a kind of self-reflection normally too bold for Broadway. (Do some liberal Jews repress a tinge of pride when the Israeli military exerts its might? Did some liberal Muslims do the same on 9/11?) Furthermore, is it continually surprising, something one wouldn’t expect in the context of such a cookie-cutter plot. At a time when it is easy to pretend to ask difficult questions about America and Islam, this is a play that actually does it.