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Mandvi of ‘Daily Show’ Stars in Powder Keg Play: Review

'Disgraced'
Aasif Mandvi in "Disgraced," at the Claire Tow Theater. The play runs through Nov. 18. Photographer: Erin Baiano/Philip Rinaldi Publicity via Bloomberg

Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- “Disgraced,” a sparkling and combustible contemporary drama from New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, is set in a sun-flooded, Upper East Side luxury apartment appointed with sleek contemporary furniture and built-in bookcases.

Amir Kapoor (Aasif Mandvi from “The Daily Show”) lives there with his artist wife (Heidi Armbruster). He’s a driven, Pakistani-American mergers and acquisitions lawyer, confident that his firm’s Jewish partners will elevate him.

“Leibowitz, Bernstein, Harris and Kapoor,” he says hopefully. “My mother will roll over in her grave.”

Amir is a Muslim apostate who telegraphs his resolve to assimilate with $600 dress shirts. His blonde wife, Emily, explores Islamic imagery in her paintings and goads him to aid an incarcerated imam who was arrested while raising money for a mosque.

“Just because they’re collecting money doesn’t mean it’s for Hamas,” she tells him.

“What does any of this have to do with me?” he asks.

“It doesn’t matter to you that an innocent man is in prison?” she retorts.

Imam Defender

Amir reluctantly agrees and is later quoted in the New York Times defending the imam. Seeing the story, he worries that the publicity will harm his career.

Ayad Akhtar’s one-act play deftly mixes the political and personal, exploring race, freedom of speech, political correctness, even the essence of Islam and Judaism. The insidery references to the Hamptons and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and art critic Jerry Saltz are just enough to make audience members feel smart.

The couple hosts a dinner for a curator at the Whitney Museum (Erik Jensen) and his wife (Karen Pittman), a black attorney at Amir’s firm. Jaded theatergoers will see the “God of Carnage”-like denouement coming, but the penalty for candor here is far worse than in Yasmina Reza’s comedy of manners.

An experienced stage actor, Mandvi digs deeper than when playing the puckish “Senior Middle Eastern Correspondent” or “Senior Muslim Correspondent” on Jon Stewart’s show.

Director Kimberly Senior stages the play efficiently, and Lauren Helpern’s opulent-looking set will inspire real-estate envy in any non-mogul.

The plot is too tidy and the exposition-to-action ratio not entirely satisfying. The playwright might have taken us inside the law firm.

But Akhtar, a 41-year-old Brown University-educated actor-playwright-novelist-screenwriter, has lots to say about America and the world today. He says it all compellingly, and none of it is comforting.

Through Nov. 18 at the Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-362-7600; http://www.lct.org. Rating: ****1/2


What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Philip Boroff is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on books and Peter Rainer on movies.

To contact the reporter of this story: Philip Boroff in New York at pboroff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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