The literary career of the prolific Ayad Akhtar, a first-generation Pakistani-American who was born in Milwaukee, seems to have gone from zero to 60 in about five seconds flat. His debut novel, "American Dervish," was just released this month to considerable acclaim, and New York producers are already swarming around "Disgraced," Akhtar's intensely arresting first play, which premiered Monday night at the American Theater Company in Chicago — in a production that clearly exceeded typical budgets for the theater.
That acceleration metaphor turns out to be an apt description of the play itself, which starts out depicting a quiet Saturday morning at home for Amir, a prominent Pakistani-American lawyer who wears $600 shirts and regards Islam as a backward way of thinking, and Emily, his loving wife, who is white and who is an artist with ambition that is quieter but just as selfish. It escalates with the arrival of a young relative and a couple of agenda-laden colleagues and ends up, less than 90 minutes later, with this desperate, destructive couple throwing each other into the walls. Literally.
There's no question that the script could use another pass with an eye for smoothing out some of its more overwrought moments and symbols — most notably the banal and predictable visual image with which Akhtar chooses to leave us, an insult to the sophistication of what has gone before.
But there is similarly no question that Akhtar is a significant talent and formidable dramatic writer, jumping headfirst into an ethnic maelstrom wherein few writers would dare even tread water.
You could say "Disgraced" is a bit like a Muslim-centered "God of Carnage," but the people are a decade younger and talk about ethnicity, sex and careers rather than kids. And there are echoes of both Theresa Rebeck's "Omnium Gatherum" and David Mamet's "Race" in the play's determination to say what others dare not say, and to argue that Americans cannot see past race any more than overachieving ethnic minorities can easily see past their own complex (and potentially self-destructive) role in an America that is both progressive and stubborn.
But there is nothing smug or satirical about what Akhtar is doing here. Mamet penned a provocation; in the same running time, Akhtar builds all the way up to a howl of passionate rage.
"Disgraced" is something of a cri de coeur for the lot of the upwardly mobile Muslim professional. It's especially focused on the first-generation Muslim professional, maybe an Ivy League guy married outside the faith and caught between a life of progress alongside those who claim they harbor neither suspicions nor resentments and the abiding personal sense that everything will come crashing down on his head. In the case of the central character here, those twin fates are linked in remarkably sophisticated fashion.
Along with Amir (played in Kimberly Senior's fast-paced and laudably fearless production by Usman Ally, who is on fire throughout) and his wife (the moving Lee Stark), Akhtar throws in a young nephew (played with apt humility by Behzad Dabu) whose main job in the play is to remind this out-of-control yuppie of his responsibilities to his own people, if they are his own people.
And then there's a Jewish character named Isaac (the superb Benim Foster), who shows up to drink wine and fire up the intellectual debate on matters of ethnic identity and professional growth, but whose motivations are deliciously oblique. Until they are finally unleashed.
If that were not enough in the way of ethnic flash points, Isaac comes with an African-American wife (Alana Arenas, who holds her fire only to unleash it with ferocity in one truly startling moment), who happens to be competing with Amir at the law firm.
With two minorities pitted against each other and the wine lubricating tongues, deeply seated resentments fly.
At moments, for sure, you start to question why all of these issues of race and identity seem to get aired at once, as if these characters were dealing with them for the first time.
That said, the show works because of the energy of Senior's production (this could be a break for her) and because of the sheer intellectual ferocity of the arguments in play. In most plays wading into these waters, you see everything coming far in advance and you guess your way to the predictable worldview of the value of tolerance.
Not here. Here, tolerance gets people nowhere. And that's what makes this "Disgraced" so interesting.
At times, the play seems to take the tack of assailing Amir for his secularization and raw ambition; but, in a most intriguing twist, it is only when he attempts to give back to his community that his ambitions and love life start to fall apart.
Not only is the ensuing train wreck quite riveting, thanks in no small part to Ally, but Akhtar smartly makes space for a moment when you come to see how perfectly ordinary mistakes can simmer in this American stew, where so much already festers. It's in that sad moment that "Disgraced" is at its best.
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes