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Ayad Akhtar’s tightly wound new work is a compact, stunning gut punch addressing the cultural affinities some of us are allowed to escape and those we aren’t. The Milwaukee-raised, Pakistani-American actor and screenwriter’s first piece for the stage introduces us to seemingly perfect thirtyish couple Amir (Usman Ally) and Emily (Lee Stark). The former is a public defender turned corporate lawyer, the latter a rising star in the art world. While Amir has rejected Islam, going so far as to change his last name to portray himself as of Indian heritage rather than Pakistani, his Caucasian, blond spouse is gaining attention for her work’s engagement with Muslim themes. She encourages him to take up the pet cause of his nephew (Behzad Dabu).
Months later, Amir’s public coming-out as Arab, thanks to news coverage of the nephew’s case, earns him unwelcome scrutiny at the office. When Amir and Emily host a dinner for his coworker Jory (Alana Arenas), who’s African-American, and her husband, Isaac (Benim Foster), a Jewish museum curator with an eye on Emily, things quickly but believably turn from NPR-polite to ugly. As Akhtar throws in some more traditionally soapy developments, they gain extra heat from the treacherous maze of race-, religion- and class-based connotations the foursome must negotiate.
If the play’s final scene puts its thumb on the scales, at least Kimberly Senior’s breathlessly intelligent production taps enormous wells of honesty. Ally, working through an astonishingly complex web of motivations and emotions, leads a uniformly terrific cast.