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Mind-chilling “Disgraced” compels on Broadway

Roy Berko

(Member—Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association)

As the final curtain fell on “Disgraced,” the audience sat transfixed.  At the start of the curtain call, there was light applause.  People seemed unable to transition from the play’s emotional ending to reality.  But then the audience, almost as a unit, jumped up, clapping and orally shouting praise for the presentation.

What had just been experienced was a mind-boggling, frightening, upsetting, enlightening, depressing, thought-provoking production.  A play which showcases the present day psyche regarding race, religion, human relationships, friendship and marriage.

“Disgraced,” set in 2011-12, focuses on Amir, an American lawyer who is a lapsed Muslim.  He is questioning, among other things, the interpretation of the “Koran” by fundamentalists, which he perceives as rules appropriate for dessert dwellers many centuries ago, but not applicable to today’s society.  He is especially aware of the prescribed ways women should be treated, and how morals and values should be confronted.

Amir’s life becomes affected when his long-time friend, Abe, asks the lawyer to be the legal counsel for an Imam who is being questioned about his possible terrorist connections.  With his wife’s encouragement, Amir gives some advice.  A newspaper article pinpointing Amir’s assistance to the Imam, which includes a reference to the legal firm for which he works, helps thrust Amir’s life into free fall.

To add to the state of affairs, Amir’s modes of operation often parallel the “worst” of the teachings he supposedly abhors.  This dichotomy becomes exposed when his job performance, marriage, and patterns of friendship become the center of action at a fateful dinner party in Amir’s plush condo, attended by his wife, Emily, friend (Isaac), and Isaac’s wife (Jory), a colleague in Amir’s law firm.

Dinner was to be a celebration announcing that Emily’s Islamic-influenced art was being included in an exhibition sponsored by Isaac, an art dealer, as well as Amir being considered for partnership in the law firm.

The results are anything but celebratory.  Amid attacks and counter attacks. His friendships and career are trashed, Emily and Amir’s marriage is destroyed, and the audience is confronted with philosophical challenges.

If one of the major purposes of theatre is to provoke thought, “Disgraced” is a banner-waver of accomplishment.  It would be impossible for any thinking person to see a production of “Disgraced” and not be moved to examine what is going on in society and, in some cases, challenge one’s belief system, and even, personal life patterns.

It is ironic that the day “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Boston Marathon bombings took place and, on the opening day of the play in London, two Muslims murdered and tried to behead a British soldier.

“Disgraced” is Ayad Akhatar’s first play.  The material was influenced greatly by the author’s having grown up in a Pakistani Muslim family.

Akhtar has stated that Muslims face an especially precarious place in American Society in the aftermath of September 11.  He has also indicated that natural fears have resulted in profiling and surveillance of Muslims, not unlike that which African Americans and Jews, historically, have experienced.

The production, under the focused direction of Kimberly Senior, is compelling.  The staging, the character interpretations, and the building of tensions leads to grabbing and holding attention.

Everything from John Lee Beatty’s upscale condo set, to Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costume designs, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, work to create the appropriate images and attitudes.

The performances are focused and effective.  Hari Dhillon, who appeared in the show’s London production, gives a Tony nomination-level performance as Amir.  Uptight, perfectly coifed and dressed, pained, and driven, the characterization and the person blend into one.  Dhillon doesn’t portray Amir, he is Amir.

Beautiful Gretchen Mol, known to many as Gillian Darmody in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” makes the emotionally-under-control character of Emily a real person.  There is no acting here, just reaction to well-crafted lines, which she creates into a well-developed character.

Josh Radnor may surprise some with his intense portrayal of Isaac, after being exposed to the actor’s nine-season run as the erratic Ted Mosby in CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother.”  The accomplished performer handles both the comedic and the explosive lines of the art dealer and adulterous, Isaac, with understanding and effectiveness.

Karen Pittman as Jory, the African American lawyer, married to a Jewish white man, gives a strong understated performance.

Danny Ashok as Abe, Amir’s Muslim young friend, creates a believable characterization of a man who may, or may not, be a real or potential terrorist.

“Disgraced” has a Cleveland connection.  The show’s major producer is The Araca Group, founded in 1997 by three west side Clevelanders,  Hank Unger, Mathew Rego and Michael Rego, who also produced “Wicked,” “Urinetown,” “Cinderella,” “Lend Me A Tenor” and “Rock Of Ages.”

Capsule judgement:  The Pulitzer Prize winning “Disgraced” is an exceptional script which gets a gripping production under the keen direction of Kimberly Senior.  The writing, acting and the technical aspects should earn the show a number of Tony nominations.  It is a must see show for anyone who appreciates though-provoking theater.

See “Disgraced” @ Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, New York