It always makes Broadway look good to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama on the boards. “Disgraced” won the 2013 prize for scribe Ayad Akhtar and fits the bill for an intellectually engaging play on a politically provocative topic. The sordid subject matter — the unconscious prejudices of liberal New Yorkers — flares during a dinner party given by an ambitious (Muslim) corporate lawyer and his (WASP) artist wife for another power couple, an (African-American) litigator and her husband, an influential (Jewish) museum curator. Helmer Kimberly Senior directed a more intimate version of this play at LCT3 in 2012.
Issue-driven plays are thought to be relatively impervious to production vagaries. That’s generally true of Akhtar’s perhaps overly schematic play, which is constructed like a house of cards, its highly civilized human relationships in perfect harmony until someone breaks out of character and throws them all off balance.
The person who acts against his own principles is Amir (Hari Dhillon), a brilliant Muslim lawyer on track to make partner in a Jewish law firm. That ambition is dashed when he foolishly lets his politically liberal wife, Emily (Gretchen Mol, stuck in a vapid role), talk him into privately counseling the legal team for a radical Muslim imam on trial for sedition.
But word inevitably gets out, and virtually overnight, the thoroughly Americanized Amir is suspected of being an Islamic extremist. Besides leaving him politically, professionally, and sexually wounded, the assassination job on his character forces him to reassess the heritage he’s long denied.
Some of the production alterations for Broadway are purely cosmetic. Being more elaborate, John Lee Beatty’s set design of a stylish Manhattan apartment (a terrace!) and Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s fashionable costumes put more emphasis on the elegant life style of the characters. The new cast, including Josh Radnor as the curator, is perfectly satisfactory, but so was the original one that played in the smaller-scale production at Lincoln Center. (Only Karen Pittman reprises her smart work as Jory, the cutthroat lawyer.)
But it must be said that replacing Aasif Mandvi (busy on his upcoming HBO series, “The Brink”) as Amir with Dhillon, the American thesp who played the role to much acclaim in London, puts a new perspective on the central character. Amir was less self-assured in Mandvi’s perf, suggesting a vulnerable man who can’t quite believe his own success. There’s not a whiff of insecurity about Dhillon, who is tall, confident, and strikingly handsome, the model of a man who would stare down his enemies and turn them into lead. It’s a more classical approach, a study of a powerful man destroyed by hubris. The kind of tragic hero you don’t often see nowadays.