By Toby Znman
For the Inquirer
“And now, reporting live from Lincoln Center, Aasif Mandvi,” starring in the powerful new play, Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. Exhausting to watch, despite its 85 minute running time, this intense drama gives Mandvi, whom most of us know as a very funny guy on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, a role to sink his teeth into, a role that is anything but funny.
Mandvi plays Amir, a rich, ambitious corporate lawyer ($600 shirts with “a ridiculous thread count”), married to Emily (Heidi Armbruster), a pale white blonde who is an artist. They function for each other as trophy spouses: he has his beautiful WASP wife, she has her “own personal moor.” (Othello, anyone?)
He has rejected his Muslim upbringing (“the Koran is one long hate mail to humanity”) and changed his name to imply to his Jewish bosses) that he is Indian rather than Pakistani. She is enthralled by the art of Islam, leading to a naïve set of assumptions about the Muslim world; this influences her paintings and leads to a major success in the post 9/11 New York art world.
The old advice about avoiding religion and politics at the dinner table proves itself right again. A dinner party --a fairly cliché setup—is the central of the play’s four scenes (and it’s no accident that she’s serving pork tenderloin). The guests are Isaac (Erik Jensen), a rumpled Jewish intellectual who is a curator at the Whitney; Isaac’s wife, Jory (Karen Pittman) is an ultra-sophisticated African-American lawyer from Amir’s firm. More trophies. Their betrayals of their marriages will prove in small what Amir’s betrayal of himself proves in large: people revert, horrifyingly, to tribal loyalties, and that the complexities of identity are both never and always skin deep.
Complicating the religious politics is Amir’s young nephew, (Omar Muskati) who is floundering, both religiously and politically. There is an arrested Imam. There is the C.I.A. An extraordinary number of crucial problems are folded into this brief play.
Most intriguing of these troubling and vivid complications is the painting that bookends Disgraced’s action; Scene One opens with the comic image of Amir standing in shirt, tie, jacket, without his pants, posing for Emily’s adaptation of Velazquez’s famous portrait, Juan de Pareja, a “moor.” The play ends with the tragic image of Amir staring at this painting as if it holds the secret to his catastrophic downfall.
The production is directed with sleek and insidious charm by Kimberly Senior.
Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, 66th & Columbus Ave. Tickets $20 (note this amazing bargain: LCT’s pricing policy, a way reach “younger and more ethnically diverse audiences.”) Extended through Dec.23.