THE BLOG
10/24/2014 01:22 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

First Nighter: Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer-Prized Disgraced in a Welcome Return

If you go by several adamant playwrights, it's a terrible idea for married couples to get together over an after-hours drink or dinner or for a casual weekend or a serious discussion about children. Nothing good ever comes of it.

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the template, but more recently there were Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, the revival of Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends and Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior in which couples -- the last named including cross-marriage cheaters -- viciously had at each other

Now Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which copped the 2013 Pulitzer Prize as a result of its Lincoln Center bow last year, has moved to the Lyceum, and again two pairs are coming to verbal and physical blows at a dinner party. They even come apart at their loose seams while the appetizers are being served and before the main course is reached.

But this isn't just a run-of-the-mill foursome, which is both the strength and the weakness of Akhtar's undertaking. Though each an individual with sundry character traits, together they represent backgrounds and viewpoints that, as the heated but economical 80-minute play unfolds, gives each of them the air of representing schematic attitudes in an Oxford Union debate.

Perhaps the most familiar to a typical New York City theatergoing audience is Emily (Gretchen Mol, recently done in on Boardwalk Empire), a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant artist, whose current canvases are influenced by Islamic tradition.

That's because she's married to Amir (Hari Dhillon), a Pakistani-American lawyer in a prestigious firm who's turned his back on a Muslim background. He does, however, appear in court -- at the behest of Emily and his cousin Abe (Danny Ashok) -- to speak in defense of a wrongly accused countryman. It's an action that's misinterpreted at his office with unfortunate repercussions.

The dinner guests who cause the kerfuffle that threatens to shake the Emily-Amir union are Jewish gallery owner Isaac (Josh Radnor) and his African-American wife Jory (Karen Pittman), a colleague in Amir's outfit.

Though the dinner participants are clearly intelligent and sympathetic people, they wantonly and irreparably breach the unofficial rule of such gatherings: Never discuss politics or religion.

They put both topics on that entrée-less table. The outcome isn't pretty as it reflects Akhtar's obviously baleful political and religious convictions, with which, not by the way, many wouldn't take issue. Akhtar believes (at least, as he writes here) that people are born into a tradition that's not only at odds with other traditions but is, in the final analysis, irrevocably embedded in the DNA, is forever defining.

In other words, when backed into corners or, as another cliché goes, when push comes to shove (which it literally does here), people revert to type. And in Disgraced pushing and shoving isn't all that occurs. (David Azuelo of UnkleDave's Fight-house is the consultant.) There's fisticuffs and some spitting.

With Amir, Isaac, Jory and Emily standing for such distinct backgrounds -- and Abe occasionally arriving to express his as well -- spectators can't avoid sniffing the pungent odor of contrivance and to wonder whether playwright Akhtar is wafting it too far. There's one slightly later twist involving the tentatively friendly couples that won't be described here, but it's hardly unfamiliar.

Would these characters revert to intolerant language so readily? Is it true that someone like Amir would regress quite so readily as he does? Would so many familiar epithets be so fiercely spit out, along with the spit?

Certainly, if the four were more civilized than Akhtar shows them to be, his play would be less dramatic. More than that, however, the anger -- not to say fury -- that arises as a consequence of the plot contrivances does make a forcible point about the way we live now, about how difficult conciliation is to achieve.

The implication is, of course, that if four presumably reasonable people can't get along even halfway through a civilized meal, what are the prospects for the broader civilization?

Ably portraying the deterioration of amiable veneers under Kimberly Senior's taut direction, Dhillon. Moll, Radnor, Pittman (the lone holdover from the LCT production) and Ashok give Disgraced everything they've got and everything Akhtar's script needs.

In some cases, they may bring even more to that appetizer-laden table. Dhillon is so handsome, he looks like a Ralph Lauren Black Label model and not so much a Wall Street litigator. No wonder Emily wants to paint him and is preparing to do so as Kenneth Posner's lights come up.

The audience gets to see her finished portrait (influenced by, as is discussed, Diego Velaquez's "Moorish Slave"). It's actually a work contributed, the program reveals, by Nils Folke Anderson and is displayed at a moment involving Amir's crucial reckoning with himself.

The grey-walled apartment with pass-through window to the kitchen is this week's John Lee Beatty set. Last week's -- or maybe it was two week's back -- offering was for the above-mentioned Donald Margulies' new play, A Country House. Beatty never stops, and it's possible, given the misfortunes occurring in the Disgraced manuscript, that this house beautiful could come onto on the market sometime soon. If so, grab it at whatever the asking price.