Timely dramas on Broadway are in very short supply, and that alone makes the bow of Disgraced an event worth applauding. Ayad Akhtar’s play — a fleet, furious, 85-minute descent into politics, identity and identity politics, all on the dark side — won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013; he co-wrote and starred in the indie feature The War Within. Disgraced stars Hari Dhillon, an American actor who has made much of his career in UK theater and film, as Amir, a fast-rising M&A lawyer with most of the trappings of success: a swell apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, an artist wife (Boardwalk Empire‘s Gretchen Mol) almost as pretty as he is and what seems to be an unobstructed path to a partnership.
Amir is American-born of Pakistani Muslim descent and has learned — especially in the post-9/11 world and even more especially at his law firm, whose partners apparently all have Jewish-sounding names — to pass as the less threatening Indian. It helps that he’s an apostate who openly loathes Islam. But wife Emily has come under the spell of Islamic art, and her work has caught the attention of Isaac, a Jewish museum curator (How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor), whose African-American wife Jory (Karen Pittman, Begin Again) works at Amir’s firm and is, like him, a comer.
Against his better judgment, Amir attends a rally in support of a jailed imam. When he is quoted sympathetically in a New York Times article about the event, he suddenly finds the ground shifting under him. A dinner party for the two couples will remind many of a similar scene in God Of Carnage, as civility quickly devolves into rage and violence, though in the case of Disgraced, the stakes are considerably higher. Needled by the smug Isaac, Amir admits to having experienced a guilty flush of pride over the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as the other three react with horror. And it’s all downhill from there.
The play has lost its essential velocity in the move from Lincoln Center Theater, where Amir was played with a thousand volts of electricity by Aasif Mandvi (best known for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart). On the stage of the tiny Claire Tow Theater, Mandvi seemed ready to explode at any second. Dhillon is clearly a skilled actor, but his Amir doesn’t fibrillate with the pent-up anger the character needs if he is to be credible.
This might have something to do, as well, with the ciphered performance by Mol, who seems to be sleepwalking through the show. She’s out of her league on the Broadway stage, and you can sense from the other actors that she’s giving them nothing to work with. The dazzler in this production, staged again by Kimberly Senior, is Pittman, taut and almost serenely tough as the colleague who gets the goodies Amir was so certain would be his.
Absent a compelling performance in the lead, Disgraced betrays some failures of logic in the plotting that might have been forgiven by both the critics and the Pulitzer jury. It still raises deeply discomfiting questions. But this little off-Broadway potboiler has reduced to a simmer in the move to Times Square.
Happier news comes from downtown, where the Atlantic Theater Company has a charmer of a new musical called Found. It’s about three aimless young friends — two men and a woman — who find a kind of salvation in producing a magazine consisting entirely of messages left on scraps of paper, fliers, car windshields, wherever, that reveal everything from the most mundane observations to the most intimate confessions. The magazine is real, as are the messages delivered in songs — by turns amusing and moving — by Eli Bolin and a book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree, after the magazine created by Davy Rothbart.
When Davy (the very likable Nick Blaemire) falls for would-be TV producer Kate (Betsy Morgan), the whole thing starts to unravel as his partners Mikey D (Daniel Everidge) and Denise (Barrett Wilbert Weed) recoil against commercializing their baby. The fact that Denise carries a torch for Davy emphasizes all the more the book’s debt to Merrily We Roll Along (both the Sondheim musical and the Kaufman and Hart original). But so what? The songs are funny, David Korins has again provided a set so full of whimsy and specificity that it’s a worthy character untio itself; Monica Bill Barnes’s choreography is hilariously de trop, and Overtree’s staging is swift and confident with an endearing cast. A total upper.