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'Disgraced' Takes on Religion and Race in NYC

Pulitzer-winning play is a stunning portrait of the state of Muslims in America today.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar is a play about a man whose life is ruined by a single act of generosity. It also a story about a couple, a stereotypical ruthless American businessman and an artist enchanted by the aesthetics of ancient Islamic art. Only the artist is white, and the lawyer was raised as a Muslim.

Amir Kapoor, born Abdullah, is a successful merges and acquisitions lawyer hoping to add his name to the trio of Jewish surnames that identify his firm once he becomes a full partner. Amir has fully renounced Islam, but that does not keep his wife Emily and nephew Abe (once called Hussein Malik) from coming to him with a favor: to attend the trial of a local imam who has been arrested for allegedly raising money for terrorists. Meanwhile, Emily is trying to get her Islam-inspired artwork into a show curated by Isaac, the husband of Amir's coworker Jory, and Amir calls in a favor.

Cue the most epic of all dinner parties, featuring politically incorrect jokes about Jews and Muslims, infidelity, in-depth arguments about the Quran and a lot of alcohol. And while the first two scenes of the play are rather slow, leading one to wonder if they are ever going to do anything besides talk, the dinner scene explodes the status quo and proves just how dramatic talking can be.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning play presents some of the most challenging questions in American culture today: Can you actually separate just the good out of a religion, leaving behind the problematic aspects? Can you ever speak with authority about any religion besides the one in which you were raised? Can like really only understand like?

While the first half of the play consciously builds up the similarities between Jews and Muslims ("Every religion's got idiosyncrasies. My ancestors didn't like lobster. Who doesn't like lobster?"), the second half is spent tearing them apart. From Palestine and airport security to presumptions about "Islamo-fascism," the relationship between these two couples quickly falls to pieces.

Amir's objection, "You haven’t read the Quran, but you’ve read a couple of sanctimonious British bullies and you think you know something about Islam?" is a good summary of the entire atmosphere of the piece. The play is full of zinger one-liners without detracting from the overall seriousness of the scene, while tense negotiation between biracial couples underlies every spoken word. Though Disgraced is not too focused on African American issues, Jory holds her own in every argument, and her identity as another race that is discriminated against is crucial to understanding the complex interactions in the piece.

Karen Pittman's Jory is a strong, striking character, a necessary foil to Gretchen Mol as Emily, whose unbreakable idealism about Islam forms the central conflict of the play. Hari Dhillon as Amir is an intensely empathetic character, whose inescapable fate and self-loathing because of the religion he was forced to practice makes him both extremely emotional and at times the most relatable person on stage. Josh Radnor as Isaac plays the conceited art critic and representative of all American Jews with nuance, while Danny Ashok as Abe is the youthful, uncertain figure contending among his wealthy and socially secure elders.

The set is another phenomenally detailed New York City apartment, clearly a speciality among Broadway set designers. From Amir's "ridiculous thread count" dress shirt to the apartment's fold-out bar and expansive balcony, this is clearly a world of luxury. But in a world in which money is not a factor, the other insidious elements of prejudice and cultural assumptions become clear.

When spoken violence finally makes its way to physical violence, it's almost a disappointment; in a play in which everything else is incredibly real, knowing that the stage combat is not, in my opinion, takes away from the intensity of the situation. And while the play as a whole is a little difficult to follow without some knowledge of merges and acquisitions law and of art history, the cultural critique feels very familiar to anyone thinking about how racism still influences society today.

Disgraced is a necessary lesson about modern American culture but without a prescribed answer, and it is that ambiguity that makes the play so powerful. It will make you question everything you thought you knew about Islam, religion in America and more. This is a play well worth seeing.

Disgraced plays at the Lyceum Theatre with tickets on sale through January 18.

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