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'Disgraced' review: Explosive Islamic politics on Broadway

From left, Hari Dhillon and Josh Radnor in

From left, Hari Dhillon and Josh Radnor in "Disgraced." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

"Disgraced" was the best play I saw in 2012. It was quick-witted, emotionally shattering and, not incidentally, the first important drama by an American of Middle-Eastern descent -- or any other descent -- to confront the complex noise and pain of Islamic cultural-identity politics.

But even after Ayad Akhtar's 90-minute fist of a play won the Pulitzer, this remained a prize winner that hardly anyone ever saw. The New York premiere had a limited run at the Lincoln Center Theater's 131-seat playhouse. Instead of moving director Kimberly Senior's intact staging to Broadway, however, the commercial producers did a different production in London.

Now finally, "Disgraced" has opened on Broadway, directed again by Senior but with less compressed tension and with four of the five characters recast. The play remains a smart and provocative work of unusual daring, one that should be seen by anyone who cares about serious theater and the knotted tangles of tribal beliefs that lurk under civilized layers of educated, liberal professionals.

But the magic is missing at the center and that magic was Aasif Mandvi. The actor, best known as a faux-correspondent on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," made us care deeply about the main character, Amir, a hotshot corporate lawyer on the partner track at a Jewish firm.

For whatever reason (the show's publicists are vague), Amir is now played by Hari Dhillon from the London production. Dhillon's Amir is more dashing and tightly wired, but without the charisma and likability that first must humanize a man who challenges us in monstrous ways. This Amir doesn't shock us enough when the politics of race and gender explode the tolerance of two upscale Manhattan couples.

Amir is married to Emily, a very blond white woman -- played competently by Gretchen Mol, but with no hint of the dark unpredictability of her Gillian in "Boardwalk Empire." Emily is exploring ancient Islamic art, in contrast with her determinedly assimilated husband with his expensive shirts. Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") has impressive layers of shifting emotions as the Jewish curator, while Karen Pittman (the only holdover from the premiere) snaps sharply between bemusement and fury as his black wife, a lawyer who works with Amir.

John Lee Beatty's apartment set is acutely appointed with tasteful privilege and Jennifer Von Mayrhauser's costumes understand the facade of women who wear spike heels to an intimate dinner party. Nothing is sacred -- the Quran, the Old Testament, terrorism, art history, cultural tourism, ancient prejudices and blazing ambivalence -- as Akhtar rubs unexpected raw spots with enormous intelligence and humor. Too bad Broadway doesn't get to feel all the burn.


WHAT "Disgraced"

WHERE Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., Manhattan

INFO $37.50-$138; 212-239-6200; disgracedonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Shattering play, imperfect production.

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