NEW YORK (AP) — What does Miss Manners say about how to ensure dinner conversations remain polite? Never bring up politics or religion. Thankfully, playwright Ayad Akhtar minds her no heed.
Akhtar's blistering "Disgraced" opened Thursday on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre with a punch and power that won it a Pulitzer Prize. Few playwrights are examining what Akhtar does, certainly not with his insightfulness, and his play is breathtaking — and not a little uncomfortable — to watch. In the best of ways.
An excellent five-person cast led by Hari Dhillon — and beautifully directed by Kimberly Senior — starts the play with swagger and confidence, building to horrific exchanges in which they are at each other's throats, and then ushering a fall, much like a Manhattan "God of Carnage."
The play by the author of "American Dervish" is similarly exploring the papered-over fault lines raging beneath even the pampered and polished. In this case, he's looking at Islam, race, cultural appropriation, entitlement and determinism. The playwright sets things up with a few scenes and then lets everything explode at a dinner party in a swanky Upper East Side apartment. Things get heated. There is violence. No wonder the pork tenderloin is uneaten.
Dhillon, reprising the role he played in London, plays Amir, a South Asian self-made lawyer at a prestigious firm who is estranged from Islam. Gretchen Mol ("Boardwalk Empire") plays his wife, a white artist drawn to Islamic art. They live a privileged life, he in $600 shirts, she sipping port before dinner.
A dinner with another couple — a Jewish museum curator played by Josh Radnor and Amir's African-American co-worker, played by Karen Pittman — should be a cause for celebration for several of the group, but some spiky exchanges — oiled by plenty of booze — send it out of control.
Of the Quran, one participant declares: "It's like one very long hate mail letter to humanity." Someone else is accused of sounding like Michelle Bachmann. One admits that 9/11 filled him with "pride." Infidelity is exposed. The N-word is used.
What's fascinating is that while Akhtar is exploring race, religion and culture, he's taken class out of the equation. All four at dinner this night are clearly 1 percenters: They all work out at Equinox and shop at Magnolia Bakery.
Dhillon nails the master-of-the-universe strut and moves across the stage almost like a boxer when his anger is fueled, making his fall all the more painful, while Mol skillfully lets a silent gulf slowly emerge between her and her husband.
But perhaps the best performances are turned in by Radnor (TV's "How I Met Your Mother") and Pittman (Broadway's "Good People"), two natural stage actors who get to be funny, outraged, needy, broken and feisty — and manage to do it all in the 90-minute work.
John Lee Beatty's sophisticated set design screams understated elegance — watch for the way a wall changes artwork during scene changes. Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's costumes are spot-on for this group of wealthy folk. And Senior, marking another fruitful collaboration with Akhtar, lets the tension build naturally, the dialogue slows when it needs to and the violence shocks and repulses.
Miss Manners clearly wouldn't approve of what happens onstage. You, on the other hand, will cheer a tight and insightful production, but you may never look at dinner with friends the same way.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits