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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Heidi Armbruster, Aasif Mandvi, Karen Pittman, and Erik Jensen.
Photo by Erin Baiano.

Four Americans—one of Pakistani descent, one of Jewish decent, one African-American, and one just plain-old white—sit at a table and munch on fennel salad. The Pakistani says to the Jew... Well, never mind. Despite all evidence to the contrary, this isn't the setup for some uproarious ethnic joke. Rather, it's the foundation for the climactic scene from Ayad Akhtar's otherwise underheated play Disgraced, which just opened at the Claire Tow Theater as part of Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 program.

When you think about it, however, the line between quick-hit comedy and searing drama of the kind Akhtar achieves here is thinner than you may at first suspect. Laughs emerge from the dangerous, the unexpected, the unstated given voice, and Akhtar uses just those notions to fuel a confrontation explosive enough to give the cast of the electric new Broadway revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a real run for its money. But what's at stake here is even more immediate and important.

Specifically: What does prejudice mean, and from where does it emerge? Each participant in this tussle, which director Kimberly Senior insists unfolds with a terrifically lacerating build, sees things very differently. Amir (Aasif Mandvi), a Pakistini-American mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer, has repudiated Islam and become an apostate. His white wife, Emily (Heidi Armbruster) is an artist who paints contemporary riffs on classic Islamic art, and is beginning to consider Islam in ways her husband does not. Amir works with the black Jory (Karen Pittman); they're both low figures on the totem pole and struggling to rise. Isaac (Erik Jensen), Jory's New York–Jewish husband, is curator at the Whitney and wants to put Emily's work in his new exhibit.

The igniting spark comes as a result of an imam who's been imprisoned under the Patriot Act on suspicion of funneling mosque donations to Hamas. Emily encouraged Amir to consult with him, but the New York Times suggested he was working on the case and not just the outsider he claims to have been. When Amir's bosses find out and question his background, leading them to discover that he wasn't entirely accurate when working to obtain his job there, this leads to a bad day at the office.

Akhtar captures in the ensuing conflagration the essence of America in 2012: fiercely battling ideologies fueled more by opinions than facts, and controlled more by volume than by common sense. He wraps world-rattling problems in a setting recognizable to anyone who's ever witnessed a simple meal between friends spin out of control. More important, he recognizes and illuminates the real rifts between not just disparate countries but between their factions as represented in the United States. Best of all, everyone has excellent reasons for believing and saying what they do, from Amir's personal experience to Isaac's lack thereof, from Jory's ghetto upbringing to Emily's all-too-select tolerance. No one is blameless.

Unfortunately, these complexities do not readily extend to the rest of Disgraced. Throughout the rest of the play, Akhtar renders the scenario as a bland, confusing, and strangely preachy discrimination tale. Contrasting Emily's explorations of Islam with Amir's own misgivings is a good idea; underscoring it with ham-handed allusions to a Diego Velázquez painting depicting black servitude, which Emily naturally recreates with Amir at its center, is more strained. Good as the dinner scene is, it's tough to believe the simmering resentments it relies on have never come up before in the years these people have known each other. And Amir's Pakistani nephew Abe (Omar Maskati), who appears thoroughly Americanized in the first scene but hardcore Muslim in the last, is an unsteady device Akhtar hasn't learned to deploy properly.

There's admittedly a lot going on here for any 85-minute play, but time management doesn't help Akhtar maximize what time he has. Too-breezy scene construction and awkward dialogue prevent any situation from getting a dramatic foothold before the dinner, so that too much of what happens there comes as a new-information surprise rather than the natural evolution of events until that point. Akhtar is apparently aiming for a contemporary racial tragedy (and August Wilson overtones are frequent), but only Lauren Halpern's magnificently opulent Upper East Side set captures the grandeur, the prestige, and the money at stake in Amir's struggle.

That includes Mandvi, who fails to inject the three-dimensional color into Amir that we need to view him as more than the caricature he insists he's not. Jensen captures Isaac's latent anger and stuffiness, Pittman Jory's get-ahead-at-any-cost attitude, and Maskati Abe's combustibility, but all three have too little stage time to make a significant impression. But Armbruster nicely negotiates Emily's confliction between the foreign culture she respects, the man she loves, and her own insecurities, leading her turnabout in the final scenes to cut surprisingly deeply.

Armbruster even gets to deliver perhaps the play's most significant line as the tensions mount: "We've all gotten way too wrapped up in the politics," she says, playing pre-emptive peacemaker. "The way we talk about things. We've forgotten to look at things for what they are." But if those words are all too apropos of the difficulties facing the U.S., they're no less relevant in discussing Disgraced itself, which despite its suppertime fireworks ultimately leaves you hungry for a more incisive analysis of how art, politics, religion, and the American Dream are inexplicably intertwined.

Through November 18
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater's newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets and current schedule: Telecharge

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