Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2013, but for anyone encountering the work for the first time at the Mark Taper Forum, where the play opened Sunday in a sensationally gripping production, it might well seem that it was written last week.
After the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., the calls for banning Muslim immigrants and the heated dispute over the term “radical Islam,” the debate at the heart of Akhtar’s drama has grown only more urgent.
This elegantly structured play centers on a dinner party in an upscale New York apartment hosted by Amir (Hari Dhillon), an alpha male lawyer of Pakistani heritage, and Emily (Emily Swallow), his artist wife. Their guests are another couple, Isaac (J. Anthony Crane), an art curator who is considering some of Emily’s paintings inspired by Islamic models for inclusion in an upcoming show, and his wife, Jory (Karen Pittman), a lawyer on the rise at Amir’s office.
Before anyone arrives, Amir, drinking alone and clearly furious, is stewing over the fallout at work over a New York Times report that mentioned his support for an imam accused of aiding terrorists. Amir, who’ s not only thoroughly assimilated and secular but also anti-Muslim in his attitudes, was talked into lending his legal expertise only after his wife played on his conscience. His nephew Abe (Behzad Dabu), a young and more traditional Pakistani Muslim with vulnerable immigration status, tried numerous times to no avail.
This is the combustible background for an evening gathering of urban professionals, set in an enviable Manhattan aerie (designed by John Lee Beatty) that is itself a sign of membership in society’s upper echelon. Here, in this sleekly appointed apartment, liberal pieties will clash violently with starkly conservative attitudes on the subjects of religion, national identity, terrorism and even the state of Israel — a gift box, in short, of assorted radioactive topics.
Akhtar seamlessly weaves these issues into the quartet’s conversation. Isaac, a Jewish progressive with an argumentative streak, presses Amir to justify his politically incorrect views on the Koran and extremism in the Muslim religion. Booze fuels tempers, making the discussion increasingly personal and acrimonious.
The brilliance of the play is the way in which identity and perception are shown to be complexly and unpredictably related. Characters often fulfill stereotypes, but they also undermine them. Nobody can be summed up by demographic data alone.
Amir is anything but a spokesperson for the Muslim faith. Rather than argue that it is essentially a religion of peace, he claims just the opposite, offending his wife, a white woman who has idealized all things Islam, and outraging Isaac, who believes he has a monopoly on rational thought.
Jory, an African American woman, can’t help pointing out the ironies in her husband’s cherished views. When Isaac disdainfully brings up that she has a quote by Henry Kissinger above her desk at home (“If faced with choosing justice or order, I’ll always choose order”), she replies in a way that helps us understand where Amir is coming from: “You pull yourself out of the ghetto, you realize real soon, order is where it’s at.”
Akhtar doesn’t take sides, even as he allows the rage inside Amir to grow dangerously. These characters are all fascinatingly flawed, and their contradictions are a reflection of the conflicts pervading their histories and cultures.
Some have faulted “Disgraced” for putting forth an unflattering view of Muslims. The two characters who share this background are anything but perfect models for the faith. Amir is a self-declared apostate, while Abe (who changed his name from Hussein to fit in better in America) seems increasingly vulnerable to radicalization.
But the play is actually about the perception of Muslim identity in the West. Akhtar wants to focus our attention on the cultural “optics,” the prism through which one group sees another.
“Disgraced” begins with Emily painting Amir in the style of Velázquez’s “Portrait of Juan de Pareja.” Amir questions his wife on her compulsion to portray him in the manner of a Moor who was Velázquez’s slave. She explains that he was also his assistant and a painter in his own right, and that the painting “has more nuance, complexity and life than his paintings of kings and queens.”
Emily is blind to the complicated politics of her own privileged acts of cultural appropriation. Her intention is to elevate her husband’s identity, but in the process, she reveals something less noble about her own.
Each of the characters, it turns out, is a composite of personal quirks and tribal legacies, of free will and environmental determinism. A muddle, in short, that no ethnic or cultural mythology will be able to sort out, though labels and stereotypes are difficult to set aside when societal factions are in open conflict.
Kimberly Senior, who directed “Disgraced” on Broadway and has had a fruitful association with the playwright, is in top form at the Taper. This is an ideal forum for this intelligent play. The stage is at once intimate and expansive, drawing the audience into the kind of public-minded work Taper founder Gordon Davidson tirelessly championed.
The pitch-perfect cast keeps the drama from becoming abstract. Perspectives are rooted in pungent personalities, and as antagonisms threaten to wreak irreparable damage, the emotional stakes rise.
Reprising the role that should have earned him a Tony nomination, Dhillon conveys both Amir’s arrogant charisma and vulnerable defiance. He will do whatever it takes not to be a victim, even if it means he must erase parts of himself and victimize others. Dhillon’s performance doesn’t shrink from Amir’s dark side, but it never lets us lose sight of the character’s impossible cultural predicament.
Pittman, another former Broadway cast member, dynamically brings to life Jory, a lawyer who has learned to swim with the sharks — and administer a sharp bite of her own when necessary. The fluidity of Pittman’s characterization, the way she inhabits Jory’s ambiguities so naturally, enlivens the production while adding to its truthfulness.
Swallow imbues Emily with a graceful delicacy. She seems simple at points in her wifely devotedness, but this character is as discreetly ambitious as the others are ostentatiously so, and Swallow doesn’t allow us to underestimate Emily for long.
Crane nicely balances Isaac’s sanity with smugness. This contrarian is the ideal theatrical foil for Amir — indeed, he’s a mirror image every bit as overbearing and unyielding. Dabu, in the small but significant role of Abe, is effortlessly realistic.
“Disgraced” will undoubtedly rile audience members with fixed ideological beliefs, but a playwright isn’t in the business of satisfying political agendas. Akhtar enjoins us to reflect more deeply on our assumptions about one another. His riveting play thrusts us into an escalating global debate. But instead of telling us what to think, he questions how we are thinking, and like any first-rate dramatist, he ends up humanizing the way we see the world.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 17. Call for exceptions.
Tickets: $25 to $85 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission