Ayad Akhtar’s bitter dramedy of tribal pride, Disgraced, opens with a sight gag: Aasif Mandvi, smartly dressed in a suit, minus pants. The forceful, suave performer (usually seen fully clothed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) maintains a trouserless hauteur as his artist wife, Emily (Heidi Armbruster), sketches him posed as Velázquez’s Moorish slave Juan de Pareja (immortalized in a portrait that hangs in the Met). All you need to know about Disgraced is indexed here: a white woman sketching a South Asian male, mediating cultural difference through art—and humiliating the exotic “other” in the process.
Not that Mandvi’s character, corporate lawyer Amir, is easily mortified. Amir wears apostasy—his rejection of Islam—as a badge of honor, and he doesn’t suffer fools of any ethnicity gladly. At the urging of his wife and nephew (Omar Maskati), Amir offers legal advice to a jailed imam accused of raising funds for terrorists. In the ensuing media attention, he finds chances of promotion at his law firm significantly lower. Meanwhile, Emily hopes her Middle Eastern–flavored paintings will be favored by Jewish curator Issac (Erik Jensen), whose African-American wife, Jory (Karen Pittman), works at Amir’s firm. Over a boozy dinner party at Amir and Emily’s, racial resentment, marital infidelity and workplace rivalry overlap and ignite. Amir finds himself caught between disgust for Islamic theocracy and contempt for the liberal pieties of his multiculti social circle.
For all its careful plotting and nine-month time frame, Disgraced could have been told over the course of an 80-minute party scene in real time without losing thematic content and, in fact, gaining dramatic momentum and impact. Director Kimberly Senior fails to find rhythm or tension in the flabby early exposition, so that all the dramatic weight lies on one eventful dinner. It does contain the play’s best writing: keen jeremiads against the Koran, fundamentalist theocracy and how even deracinated Arabs can savor Islamic aggression. With the exception of Amir (Mandvi is scary and hilarious on slow simmer), the characters are flattish types that exist more to annoy and inflame him than to add complexity to Akhtar’s social critique. We never get a good look at the painting Emily made of Amir, but I suspect it’s a fairly broad caricature.—David Cote
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