I cheered when Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced. The play’s New York premiere at Lincoln Center’s LCT3 Theatre was an invigorating theatrical experience that urgently and poignantly explored issues of race and religion in a post-9/11 age. Therefore, it is with a heavy sigh of disappointment that I acknowledge that the new Broadway production of Disgraced, which just opened at the Lyceum Theatre, is merely satisfactory rather than revelatory.
The play itself remains nuanced as it follows corporate lawyer Amir (Hari Dhillon), who decidedly does not want to be identified by his Pakistani and Muslim heritage. He’s changed both his last name and his Social Security number, and passes himself off as Indian at his law office. He identifies as an apostate who has renounced ties to Islam, and initially resists the pleas from nephew Abe (Danny Ashok) and wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) to lend legal assistance to an imam whom they feel has been wrongly accused of abetting terrorists. Amir warns that involving himself in the case could have negative consequences—and he’s right.
Akhtar has constructed his drama as a modern-day tragedy, and watching Amir’s fall from grace can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Except in the Broadway production it’s not. There are a couple of reasons for this. The LCT3 production was in a tiny theatre and the play benefitted from the intimacy that setting enabled. The Lyceum is a much bigger house, and so the action feels more distanced.
The other reason is a change in the play’s lead actor. Off-Broadway, Amir was portrayed by Daily Show veteran Aasif Mandvi, who possessed an inner fire that you could feel burning just beneath the surface of his interactions with other characters. And so when Amir inevitably explodes in a moment of rage and frustration, his actions are understandable if not necessarily forgivable. Dhillon has a cooler demeanor, and a more presentational style of acting that reads falsely. The arguments over politics and religion that he has with dinner guest Isaac (How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor) don’t escalate in the same way, resulting in an only modest level of tension.
The blame for the slacker pacing of this scene also rests with director Kimberly Senior, who previously helmed the LCT3 production as well as the play’s world premiere at Chicago’s American Theater Company. Granted, she could be making a calculated risk, as a less emotional involvement in the scene has the effect of being able to more closely follow the arguments laid out by Amir and Isaac. And to be fair to Dhillon, the actor convincingly displays his character’s increasing inebriation that affects his judgment in regards to what he says and how he says it. Radnor, for his part, makes for a good verbal sparring partner as Isaac pokes and prods at what he feels are the weak points in Amir’s pronouncements. Still, the build to the play’s moment of catastrophe does not feel as organic as it should.
Mol brings an earnestness to her portrayal of Emily—a Caucasian female artist enamored of Islamic artistic traditions—that makes it difficult to dismiss her sometimes naïve views of art and politics. It also lends weight to her final scene with Amir, with the haunted look in her eyes acknowledging her own disillusionment with her previously held worldview.
The true standout in the cast is Karen Pittman as Jory, an African American solicitor who works with Amir, and who is also Isaac’s wife. Pittman—who is the only performer who was also in the Off-Broadway company—gets the maximum effect from her lines utilizing simple shifts in vocal pitch, calculated pauses, and an attention to subtext that not only underscores the playwright’s meaning but also brings out the play’s humor. Rounding out the cast is Ashok’s Abe. While likable, his impassioned speech to Amir that gives the play its title comes across as a little overly rehearsed.
Disgraced remains a timely and provocative drama that deals with complex issues of internalized racism, Orientalism, and the increased amounts of suspicion unfairly directed at Muslims in America. It doesn’t provide easy solutions, instead requiring the viewer to question both the hegemonic power dynamics that Amir struggles against within the play as well as his own personal culpability in what eventually befalls him. It’s sure to provoke interesting post-show discussions that are valuable and necessary. I just wish I could be more enthusiastic about the Broadway production and not just Akhtar’s poignant script.
Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, performs on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street). Tickets are $37.50-$138 and can be purchased in person at the theater, or by calling 212-239-6200 or visiting www.telecharge.com. Performances are Tu-Sa at 8; mats Sa at 2, Su at 3. Beginning October 28, schedule is Tu-Th at 7, F & Sa at 8; mats W & Sa at 2, Su at 3. For more information, visit www.disgracedonbroadway.com.