Playwright Ayad Akhtar really sticks it to upper-class liberals in “Disgraced,” his blistering social drama about the racial prejudices that secretly persist in progressive cultural circles. When the Muslim heritage of a successful corporate lawyer is revealed, his friends and colleagues claim to think nothing of it. But all it takes is one intimate dinner party for that disingenuous claim to go up in flames. Dynamically staged by helmer Kimberly Senior and earnestly acted by a cast topped by Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”), this play has “Transfer me!” written all over its face.
The restrained luxury of Lauren Helpern’s Upper East Side apartment setting and the tasteful elegance of Dane Laffrey’s costumes tell us a lot about Amir, the high-flying lawyer played by Mandvi, and his white wife, Emily (Heidi Armbruster), an up-and-coming artist.
Life is good, maybe even perfect, for this loving couple. But all that changes when Emily, who has developed an obsessive interest in Islamic art and culture, urges her thoroughly Americanized husband to take on the cause of an imprisoned cleric. Amir is a corporate animal, but because his beloved Emily is a nag, he eventually gives in and offers his professional advice to the cleric’s legal counsel.
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Unfortunately, Amir’s name gets into the newspaper, and the senior partners in his law firm suspect he has Islamic sympathies. Suspicion leads to investigation, and it eventually comes out that Amir has been less than truthful about his background.
The repercussions of this subterfuge are felt at a dinner party that Amir and Emily give for Isaac (a nice performance from Erik Jensen), who has invited Emily to show her paintings at his art gallery, and his African-American wife, Jory (the commanding Karen Pittman), a tough cookie and a top-flight litigator in Amir’s law firm.
Scribe Akhtar knows how to build a scene and maintain suspense, so there’s a sense of inevitability about the damage that’s done over the course of the evening. But because of the artful construction, it still comes as a shock when the two couples go into attack mode. Racial tensions are exposed, religious prejudices are aired, and the liberal principles these people supposedly live by are totally trashed.
Among this enlightened company, Amir is the only one with the courage to admit his true feelings about racial politics — and he’s doomed by his own honesty. Mandvi, who has been a good soldier throughout the play, grows in strength and stature at the end, earning our respect for Amir as a man willing to accept the public disgrace that comes from telling the truth.