Ayad Akhtar's amazing 'Disgraced'

Aasif Mandvi and Heidi Armbruster star as Amir Aasif Mandvi and Heidi Armbruster star as Amir and Emily Kapoor in "Disgraced" at Lincoln Center. The play is directed by Kimberly Senior. ( Oct. 1, 2012) Photo Credit: Erin Baiano

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Linda Winer Newsday theater critic and arts columnist Linda Winer.

Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist for Newsday, which she joined in 1987. ...

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"Disgraced," the best play I saw last year, has won the Pulitzer Prize. You are forgiven for stifling a "Huh"?

"Disgraced" is also the best play that most people never knew was here. It was presented last fall in a limited run -- at $20 a ticket -- in Lincoln Center Theater's tiny but mighty new-play series, the LCT3, nestled in the 131-seat Claire Tow jewelbox on top of the Vivian Beaumont. The first six weeks sold out, as did a two-week, then a three-week extension.

I don't always review unknown plays in brief engagements for such small potential audiences. I did see this one later in the run and, though there wasn't time to review it, I urged everyone I care about to get over there to see this quick-witted and shattering drama by a novelist named Ayad Akhtar. I also ranked it third in my top 10 for last year, right after "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Death of a Salesman."

Despite the play's wide acclaim, the commercial producers who own the rights, The Araca Group, did not transfer it to a bigger Off-Broadway showcase or to Broadway, but chose to do a different production in London first. According to Araca's Amanda Watkins, the group hopes "one day in the near future to open the play again in New York."

Akhtar found out about his Pulitzer on a day for which the words "mixed emotions" are insufficient. It was April 15, and he was in a hotel room in London, where "Disgraced" opens later this month. "BBC News was playing clips of the Boston explosions, over and over," he told me in a phone interview from London.

The Lincoln Center press agent called him and told him the Pulitzer news. "I said, 'Are you sure this didn't come from a crank call?' Then I started jumping up and down. What an extraordinary moment," he understates, pausing, "But can you believe the announcement was happening on the same day as the tragic bombing?"

This was more than a happy-sad confluence of unrelated emotions. After all, as he puts it, "The play does emanate from that same world."

"Disgraced" builds on explosive passions and ambivalence about Islam and other American identities colliding into two upscale Manhattan couples. The main character, Amir, is a hotshot corporate lawyer on the partner track. Here, he was played with devastating layers of conflicting passions by Aasif Mandvi, best known as a "correspondent" on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Amir is married to a very blonde white woman, an artist far more fascinated by ancient Islamic art than is her determinedly assimilated husband. The artist's curator is Jewish, married to a black lawyer at Amir's Jewish-owned firm. If this sounds like a one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B formula for sociopolitical punditry, forget it. "Disgraced" rubs all kinds of unexpected raw spots with intelligence and humor.

Paige Evans, LCT3's artistic director, read an earlier version of the script, then saw a Chicago production of it and wanted it for Lincoln Center. "I hadn't really seen Middle Eastern Americans explored like this before," she said in a phone interview, explaining about the two developmental readings and "huge rewrites" before "Disgraced" opened here. "It's a very smart, fierce, thought-provoking play that grapples with complicated questions about our world. It's also very funny."

Of course, Akhtar hardly just arrived at the theater, fully formed, with a Pulitzer-winning play in his hands. Born on Staten Island 42 years ago to Pakistani parents who moved with him to Milwaukee, he has a theater degree from Brown and graduated from Columbia's School of the Arts -- in film -- in 2002.

He and two fellow students made "The War Within," a 2005 indie film about the radicalization of a Pakistani engineering student after he is arrested for being a terrorist. Akhtar, also an actor, played the student. He even earned a Spirit Award nomination for his screenplay. But when the movie didn't kick-start his career as he had hoped, he turned to fiction.

His highly regarded debut novel, "American Dervish," is about a Muslim-American living in the Midwest in the '80s. He played a big-money guy in HBO's "Too Big to Fail," but told me, "Roles just aren't there for an actor of my ethnicity. I wanted to create expansive, nuanced, forceful roles for people like me."

In addition to "Disgraced," Akhtar has another play, "The Invisible Hand," that is a finalist this year for the prestigious Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Prize, but has not yet been seen in New York. As he describes the plot, an American trader working in the emerging market in Pakistan is kidnapped, but he turns his prison into a trading room.

For now, Akhtar is "still a bit in shock" over the Pulitzer and fascinated with the shaping of the British production. "It's interesting to watch English actors do America," he said, wondering about the "whole interplay between what British think of Americans and what Americans think of the British. Will the audience view the play as about America or the world? Obviously, I hope for the latter."

Paige was sad -- as were many of us -- that the commercial producers chose not to move the LTC3 production. Akhtar tells me they decided to go to London because "they didn't think there was enough momentum to justify a Broadway transfer." I suspect there is plenty of momentum now.

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