Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman, and J Anthony Crane in Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced, directed by Kimberly Senior, at the Mark Taper Forum.
Hari Dhillon, Emily Swallow, Karen Pittman, and J. Anthony Crane in Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced, directed by Kimberly Senior, at the Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, opens with a man posing for a portrait, and concludes — 90 surprising and serpentine minutes later — with the same man studying the completed portrait. That makes for a fitting conclusion. Akhtar's characters spend the duration of the play trying to figure out the key elements of their own cultural identities.

The playwright, along with director Kimberly Senior, recognizes this kind of identity quest as the rockiest of journeys, and in the play's Los Angeles premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, we very much enjoy the jostling. Akhtar has noted that his play blends genre-specific entertainment with weightier themes, and here that mission is thoroughly accomplished. Senior's sure-handed production deftly swerves unexpectedly between domestic comedy and tragedy almost before we know what has hit us. Senior, who has directed at least three previous versions of Disgraced, has enlisted veterans from past productions both on Broadway and regionally.

Akhtar has given these players much to work with. Amir (played by Hari Dhillon) is a hot-shot New York attorney struggling with his Muslim heritage in present-day America. His artist wife Emily (Emily Swallow), though Caucasian and not a Muslim, connects more deeply to the faith than he does, especially as it informs her artwork.

Rounding out the players are Amir's equally conflicted nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu) and Emily and Amir's married friends Isaac (J. Anthony Crane) and Jory (Karen Pittman). Isaac is a curator who has the power to get Emily into his next show at the Whitney while his wife Jory is an attorney in Amir's firm. Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African-American. Get those two couples talking office politics and racial profiling over a bottle of wine, and events have the potential to get very hot very quickly.

Even before that cathartic dinner party, however, Akhtar lays the groundwork for introspection and fracturing. Amir and Emily may be a devoted and well-synched couple who support each other's ambitions, but rifts are developing. An Imam has been arrested for potential ties to terrorism, and Abe and Emily both want Amir to join the legal team. That's a risky maneuver for Amir, who is gunning for a partnership at his law firm where people have been asking about his name and ethnic background. At Emily's urging, Amir makes a choice about the Imam, and he experiences repercussions.

Emily's career, meanwhile, is every bit on the rise even while her marriage is facing challenges. A man of Pakistani descent may inspire distrust in an Upper West Side law firm, but the style and influence of Arab traditions on Emily's paintings give the already impassioned Emily some credibility within the art world. "Islam is part of who we are, too," she tells Isaac, promising that she will change the way he sees art. "This is good," replies the curator who might have other motives for saying so.

Akhtar's plot is tight, if a bit convenient. Given the Imam case, the law firm jockeying, and the surrounding characters' cultural backgrounds, Amir's conflicts with Emily, Abe, Isaac, and Jory feel like "perfect storm" story construction. That said, even with the play's short length, Akhtar has written all five characters with depth and sensitivity. With the high-quality work of Senior's cast, Disgraced does not easily invite us to take sides or pass judgment.

As the play's dual protagonists, Dhillon and Swallow beautifully establish the foundation around which it operates. Their interplay is casual and intimate, comfortable, and occasionally distant. She pushes, he retreats, often in ways that we don't anticipate. Swallow's work is subtle; she leaves much of Emily's domestic turmoil quietly below the surface. As the dinner party threatens to unravel, Swallow brings out Emily's helplessness more so than her convictions.

Dhillon's performance is consistently more surprising. The actor, who initially makes Amir so breezy and almost boyish, shows us his gradual hardening as we get deeper into the play. It's easy to recognize, in Dhillon's portrayal, a man who would volunteer for TSA security searches at airports before being asked. And we see the toll that his resentment over years of these concessions has taken. Amir may claim to be an apostate, but his background ties have a far stronger pull on his allegiances than he realizes.

Pittman's Jory reaps plenty of laughs with her drollness and understated irony. Crane likewise takes Isaac beyond what could, in different hands, be a slimy character. The dinner party is a careful dance that takes the characters from superficial friendship to much darker territory. All four performers expertly negotiate this minefield.

With its spacious foyer, book shelves, kitchen nook and mantelpiece, John Lee Beatty's apartment set nicely establishes the Kapoor's world as a recognizable place. Of course, things are changing. Disgraced makes it abundantly clear that outside the relative safety of an upscale Upper East Side apartment in a distrusting America, Amir Kapoor's world is still very much taking shape.