From the moment Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced begins, we are intrigued. Set in designer John Lee Beatty’s upper east side Manhattan apartment, even the scenery speaks to us. The set captures the absurd notion that if enough rent is charged, one will be forced to take pleasure in the cable outlets, the dimmers on the light switches, the timers on the kitchen appliances, the balcony that is so thin it cannot accommodate even one chair or table, and all the other perks that the one percent demands when it rents or purchases living quarters in 2011. Charm goes out the sliding windows, comfort is a word to be used only in describing mother in a Netflix classic film of the 1930s. No, before anyone even says a word, this grand one-bedroom apartment, with its view of the brick wall of a neighboring tower of the same vintage, lets us know we are not in for You Can’t Take It With You.
But when words do emerge, we’re introduced to Amir and Emily, a handsome couple who would seem to have everything. She is an artist who is beginning to get attention, and at the top of the play she is painting a portrait of her husband, he dressed impeccably from the waist up in a $600 shirt with tie to match. His legs are bare but even his socks and shoes are out of the pages of a catalog from one of the finest men’s clothiers. He’s handsome to boot, is a prominent corporate attorney in the world of mergers and acquisitions. That’s the world where starting salaries are at least $150,000 a year and Amir is long past his start. A busy day is about to begin for both of them.
In scene two we will meet Amir’s nephew, who begs him to put in an appearance in court to support an imam who has been jailed on suspicion of raising money for terrorists. Amir is reluctant to get involved but is convinced it will only be a gesture as he is not the attorney on the case. His appearance is the catalyst that creates a maelstrom from which no one escapes unharmed.
The third scene, set three months later in the late fall of 2011, deals with a dinner party, comprised of the perfect mix to show how integrated New York has become as the century grows into maturity. Amir was born in Pakistan, but the year before his birth it was still part of India, and, as he’s not above going with the flow in order to rise in the material world, he has told the world he is Indian. Emily is white bread very liberal American with the requisite blonde hair and blue eyes. Isaac is a Jewish art curator at the Whitney Museum and his wife Jory is a chic African-American woman who is on the rise at Amir’s office. So everyone knows everyone, and this microcosm of the United Nations would seem to show democracy at work in this 21st Century in which we are now all coping as best we can.
The play begins smoothly enough. But in 85 beautifully written minutes, by scene three of the four, months have passed, and temperatures have risen to the boiling point as buried attitudes and prejudices have risen so dramatically that slightly edged banter escalates to shocking violence and as the play winds down to its uncompromising conclusion, all five characters have been shaken and all the relationships have shifted and changed. What sounds at first like a polished Neil Simon comedy about disparate types from varied backgrounds, escalates into a powerful and very contemporary drama. It’s reminiscent of the recent God of Carnage, but that play begins with tension, this one escalates from joyous banter to uncontrolled rage.
In order to dramatize character flaws, deeply guarded secrets, a past indiscretion,a touch of betrayal, some contrivances and short cuts have been employed. But Mr. Akhtar’s accurate ear for the dialog of this segment of today’s population doesn’t permit us to notice until after we’ve left the theatre. He is aided by a spot-on cast of five, some of whom have played their roles in England and at the Claire Tow theatre in Lincoln Center, where the play had a short run in late 2012. It won the Pulitzer in 2013, but this is its Broadway debut, and it most certainly deserves the exposure this larger venue offers.
Hari Dhillon played Amir in London, and as he’s an actor I’ve not seen before, he was so perfectly cast I felt they’d simply plucked some willing executive right out of his character’s corner office to play the role. Karen Pittman played Jory in the Claire Tow tryout production, and she brings great wit, intelligence and style to the character and becomes the most likable power grabber I’ve seen yet. Josh Radnor, best known for his nine season run on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”, proves himself, as do all the others, to have full command of the stage. Added to Danny Ashok (the nephew) in support, you won’t find a more finely tuned ensemble on any other current stage.
Full credit for the staging, for helping these gifted actors blend together to create a real sense of family and friendship, goes to Kimberly Senior who brings to this turbulent and disturbing but very effective play the same sort of power combined with control that brings to mind the early work of Elia Kazan. She will be known as a pioneer in the further breaking of any barriers to women working as powerful directors of drama.
Disgraced is onstage now at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W 45th Street. NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.