Rude awakenings are the raw material of drama. Ever since the unfortunate King Oedipus, characters have been jolted to realize that their self-image is colossally, and, ultimately, catastrophically different from the ways in which others have perceived them.
A particularly stunning downfall is now on view at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, in Ahmed Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play, “Disgraced.” The play follows a successful Arab-American corporate lawyer who finds himself unable to cope with both his own deep ambivalence about his heritage, and the ongoing prejudice toward Arabs in post-9/11 America. As a result, the challenges and contradictions of being Arab in America are spectacularly laid bare.
When the curtain rises on “Disgraced,” which is ably directed by Kimberly Senior, the main character, Amir, played with preening self-confidence by the tall, athletic Hari Dhillon, is having his portrait painted. The setting is his ritzy Upper East Side apartment, and the painter his eager-to-please blonde American-born wife, Emily, played by Gretchen Mol.
The modeling session is interrupted by Amir’s young nephew, Abe, played by a fiery Danny Ashok, who implores his uncle to attend a hearing for a Muslim sheik who has been arrested for raising funds for terrorists — a request that raises all kinds of red flags for Amir; the older (though still young) man insists that he has no attachment to Islam and to its clerics, and even calls the Koran “one long hate letter to humanity.”
Amir also has a more pressing matter on his mind, which is whether or not he will soon become the only non-Jewish named partner in the law firm where he works. He believes that no one at the firm knows that he is only masquerading as a Hindu from India, while he is actually a Muslim from Pakistan.
While Amir is waiting to hear of his promotion, his wife is waiting to hear if her work will be chosen for an upcoming exhibition at the Whitney; the judge is a secular Jew named Isaac, played with a kind of hyper-intellectual smugness by a bearded Josh Radnor. The curator happens to be married to the African-American Jory (serenely played by Karen Pittman), one of the other attorneys at Amir’s firm, who has her own lofty career aspirations.
The play’s climactic scene comes as the two couples sit down at a dinner party thrown by Amir and Emily, in which the conversation veers off to reveal the most deep-seated religious, racial and political differences between the hosts and their guests — one of which triggers Amir to confess a deeper sympathy for Islamic fundamentalism than he has ever admitted even to himself.
Ironically, Amir’s standard for success in America is essentially a Jewish one. As a young adolescent, he recalls, in a not-quite-believable assertion, he “didn’t know what a Jew was,” other than that Jews “stole land from the Palestinians and were hated by God more than other people.” He was taught to hate Jews by his mother, who induced him to spit in the face of a Jewish girl upon whom he had a crush in middle school.
Now, Jews represent everything to which he aspires. “We are the new Jews,” he proclaims, even as the Jewish establishment, in his mind, never fails to remind him and other minorities, including African-Americans, that they were “just invited to the party,” and are in no way permanently ensconced in positions of power and prestige — no matter how expensively tailored their suits are. But anti-Israel, anti-Western feelings lurk just below the surface; in his explosive confrontation with Isaac at the dinner party, Amir admits to feeling a measure of pride when Islamic terrorists strike. He asks Isaac if he feels the same when he sees the Israeli government taking military action.
Plays about visual artists inevitably deal with themes of appearance and reality, and “Disgraced” is no exception. And perhaps not since John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” and Yasmina Reza’s “Art” (not to mention the Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sunday in the Park With George”) has painting been such a central subject of a Broadway play. In “Disgraced,” art is not just a way of varnishing the truth but of remaking it.
Emily, an artist who ironically gets most of her ideas from Islamic art, has been inspired to paint Amir by Diego Velázquez’s “Moorish Slave,” which hangs at the Met. Having witnessed Amir being insulted by a racist restaurant waiter the evening before, Emily is determined to paint Amir in the way that she sees him, and the way in which she believes that he sees himself — as someone who is sitting on top of the world, or at least as high up as his tony Manhattan apartment is able to elevate him.
But Amir’s self-image is so fragmented that it is fated to undergo a kind of psychological fission that will destroy everything in its wake. His rage, when it comes, is directed against a society that will never let him be anything other than an outsider, no matter how elegant, vainly peering in.
“Disgraced,” which premiered in 2012 at Lincoln Center, has its own flaws. The plot hums along quickly, and the twists are startling, but it often seems contrived. Worse still, the drama is too oriented around Amir’s conflicts. The other characters seem shallow by comparison, and too often become mouthpieces for their views on politics and religion. But Dhillon (who starred in last year’s London production, with a different director) is a magnetic actor with matinee-idol looks who convincingly shows the stages in his character’s unraveling; the production is worth seeing for his performance alone.
Akhtar, who is from a Pakistani-American family in Milwaukee, is one of the first of a wave of Arab-American playwrights and artists who have recently garnered attention. Another of his plays, “The Invisible Hand,” about an American investment banker taken hostage by Islamic militants in Pakistan, is set to open next week at the New York Theatre Workshop, where “Food and Fadwa” a play by Arab-American writers about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, debuted in 2012. As the Arab-American population (a majority of which is Christian) continues to increase, Arab-American culture will also burgeon. If “Disgraced” is any indication, there will be much to celebrate and much over which to wage debate.
“Disgraced” runs at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $37.50-$138, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.