Aasif Mandvi may be best known as The Daily Show's "Senior Middle East correspondent," but the comic actor demonstrates he has dramatic chops as well in Ayad Akhtar's excellent new play Disgraced, at Lincoln Center's new Claire Tow Theater.
Mandvi portrays Amir, a successful corporate lawyer who has actively distanced himself from his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, even going so far as to change his last name and pass himself off as Indian to his work colleagues. However, when his nephew Abe (Omar Maskati) and Amir's Caucasian wife Emily (Heidi Armbruster) convince him to intervene on behalf of an Imam accused of raising money for terrorists, Amir's carefully constructed life begins to unravel.
As might be expected, the playwright critiques overtly racist attitudes as well as more subtle forms of prejudice. But in addition, he makes the subject positions held by several characters in the play much more complicated than initially apparent.
The play's pivotal scene is a dinner party at Amir and Emily's Upper East Side apartment (beautifully rendered by scenic designer Lauren Helpern), where the couple plays host to Jory (Karen Pittman), one of Amir's work colleagues, and her husband Isaac (Erik Jensen), who is curating an exhibition that will showcase some of Emily's paintings that are influenced by Islamic traditions.
What starts out as a simple discussion about art rapidly escalates into a debate on religion that then spins dangerously out of control. A particularly provocative statement that is made about Muslims and the terrorist attacks of September 11 is liable to make audience members as uncomfortable as the characters on stage.
Mandvi delivers a nuanced performance that allows the audience to feel sympathy for Amir's growing frustration and anger without necessarily excusing his words and actions that are questionable at best, and damning at worst. It's also interesting to see how the actor shifts his physical and vocal characteristics depending upon which character Amir is relating to. This is most pronounced in the restrained but loving attitude he expresses towards Maskati's Abe in the play's final scene.
Armbruster pushes a little too hard at times, but still gets across Emily's passion and naivete. Her rapport with Mandvi is strong, helping to make the relationship between their characters believable.
Jensen is terrific as Isaac, who has a hidden agenda that contributes to the way the dinner party implodes. Pittman brings a quiet strength to Jory, the African-American solicitor who would seem to be one of Amir's closest allies at the law firm they both work at, but who has news of her own that has far-reaching consequences.
The play's action is expertly guided by director Kimberly Senior so that the play's numerous plot twists – several of which come in rapid succession – never seem forced. Instead, the humor of the writing, the richness of the characterization, and the complexity of the play's handling of race politics all shine through clearly.