Ayad Akhtar's much-praised and Pulitzer-graced Disgraced made a confident, comfortable arrival on Broadway Oct. 23 at the Lyceum Theatre, and its topically hot food-for-thought was received by the welcoming first-nighters much like a banquet. Smart small-talk with an ominous undercurrent of blind-sighted racism is a rarity on Broadway — look around — and it took some pretty heavy lifting to get there, like three preliminary gigs (Chicago, Lincoln Center and London — "pre-Broadway," if you must, although nobody knew really that until it nabbed the Pulitzer Prize for 2013).
Think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — only with a political agenda that upstages (but not entirely) the drinking and the incidental adultery. The foursome is a kind of mini-U.N., coming together in an Upper East Side apartment for some after-hours socializing and celebrating, each with a nationality and personality of its own.
The leading character — the host who gets thoroughly humped by the evening's out-of-control verbal pyrotechnics — is Amir Kapoor (Hari Dhillon), a high-priced, high-energy lawyer born in Pakistan and raised Muslim who forgets all that and lets people assume he's Indian so he can more swiftly ascend the corporate ladder. His blonde white-bread wife, Emily (Gretchen Mol), is the Islamic expert in the family, a painter who is equally successful, ironically drawing her inspiration for Islamic art.
Their guests are Jory (Karen Pittman), an African-American associate at his law firm, and her husband, Isaac (Josh Radnor), a Jewish art curator who's putting together a show of Emily's work. Hence, obsessively, the cause for celebration. Unfortunately, the world is too much with them, more than they suspect, and the topic of radical Islam and its accompanying terrorism turn a festive event into a free-for-all. Akhtar admits to be being a survivor of just such a drastic evening, and, although it never reached the dramatic extremes of his play, he has an ex-wife to prove it. The playwright-novelist, who turns 44 in four days, saw fit to skip his Broadway debut. True to The Producers and the long line of nervous playwrights before him, he spent that time at the bar across the street, surfacing at play's end with his director, Kimberly Senior, to take a bow on stage with his hard-working cast.
Evidently an equal-opportunity employer, Akhtar picked up new personnel every stop of the play. Director Senior and Benim Foster, who understudies Radnor, come from the original Chicago production; Pittman is the Lincoln Center survivor; Dhillon and Danny Ashok, who plays Amir's nephew, were brought over from London; Radnor and Mol are new to the production by way of Hollywood.
At the Edison Ballroom after-party, Akhtar explained the method in his madness. "We were continuing to try to grow with the play, and the play continued to need work," the writer admitted. "It continued to want to get more and more specific and more clear and more direct and more expansive — and the Broadway stage was an opportunity to do all those things. New actors truly helped the play to grow."
His director subscribed to the same company line. "I think every time you bring in new elements, you learn more and more about the play," she said. "For Ayad and I to continue to advance and expand the work, we needed the voices of others. I guess I would say in the positive that I knew I needed Karen [Pittman] to continue with the production in the role of Jory. It's just how the project developed. Usman Ally — who's in Ayad's next play, The Invisible Hand, at New York Theatre Workshop in December — played Amir in Chicago and brought something amazing to it. Every time, it has been a challenging experience. Each actor made their indelible mark."
She insisted she enjoyed "every minute" of bringing Disgraced to Broadway. "This is my life's work — to make plays that are important that get people to keep talking. There's no point, otherwise. When I started on this, there was no Pulitzer. It just felt like a play of our moment. It's a very contemporary, thrilling play that speaks to the moment we are in history right now. I think it's a moment to explode and explore."
Senior is having a banner year, Pulitzer-wise. Next, "I'm going to direct a play at the Goodman in Chicago — Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. It was a Pulitzer runner-up the year Ayad won. It's about the distance between who you thought you were going to become and who you became. I think it's a intoxicating, charged play." Dhillon took the position that different actors helped improve his game and his performance. "When you work with other people and you've done the play before, you really just have to realize that these are different people saying lines different ways so you really have to focus on your listening. In some way, it's deepened the play for me — for the better. I feel like I've found another few layers in it, just by listening to other people talking and being forced to listen to the way they say the lines.
"It's hard, though. You get used to hearing a line from someone and you feel like it worked, but, after a while, I became very conscious of thinking, 'Let's leave all that behind. That's all work that's left in my bones, so let's find out what comes next.'
"The play is so incredibly well-constructed, and, with this part, I get to run through an entire arc. It's rare as an actor to be able to do that anyway, much less as an Indian actor. You don't have that many opportunities to run through it, literally, from A to Z and back again in under 90 minutes. What could be better!"
Pittman seemed pretty pleased with the role she landed, running an impressive gamut from consuming rage to throwaway comedy. "Comedy in theatre is very, very specific," the actress was quick to point out. "The audience gives you all the laughs. They tell you where they are, and so we have a great time. It's a wonderful story.
"The story with Jory is that she's the character people can relate to, and I think she is the most likable character on stage. I love that Jory is strong and sexy. She saunters."
Radnor, who made a name for himself on TV's "How I Met Your Mother" and as writer/director/star in feature films, is originating a role on Broadway for the first time. "I took over in The Graduate about 12 years ago," he recalled, "and I'm happy to be back here. When I was growing up as a theatre-obsessed teenager in Columbus, Ohio, I didn't think about being in film or television. I wanted to be on Broadway. That's where I wanted to be, so this, to me, is the fulfillment of a dream." Radnor has himself to thank for landing back on Broadway, but he didn't go the usual route: "I read Ayad's novel, 'American Dervish,' a couple of years ago, which I flipped for. I thought it was such a beautiful book, and I wrote him a fan letter, and we started a correspondence and a friendship. I had a three-hour-long coffee, and then he sent me Disgraced before it had ever been done, so I knew about this play."
He plays Isaac with equal measures of ease and spine. "I found a freedom in him and a kind of swagger, but he knows who he is," said Radnor of his art curator. "He's very good at his job. He's got a great eye. He trusts his taste, and he trusts his opinion. He doesn't mind locking horns with people. There were certain things about him that gave me permission to behave in ways that, perhaps, I wouldn't behave at a dinner party. That was really important to Kimberly and Ayad. They wanted Isaac and Amir to be good sparring partners — act like they could take each other on."
Moments of domestic violence in the play are dramatically staged by a couple of fight choreographers calling themselves UnkleDave's Fight House (a.k.a. David Anzuelo and Jesse Geguzi). "After reading the play a couple of times," said Anzuelo, "I conceptualized, had a discussion with Kimberly, then we went in and tried it." Next, they'll administer a caning to Richard Chamberlain in Sticks and Bones.
Two Pulitzer Prize winners from the past were in supportive attendance: Ruined's Lynn Nottage, who's turning her Intimate Apparel into an opera, and Next to Normal's Tom Kitt who's musicalizing Richard Jenkins' Oscar-nominated 2007 film, "The Visitor."
Also in evidence: Steve Guttenberg; Pippin's Rachel Bay Jones; Sideman's Christian Slater and Brittany Lopez-Slater; Jennifer Laura Thompson and Jessica Bogart; Honeymoon in Vegas-bound Tony Danza and his TV "Boss," Judith Light, and her husband, Robert Desiderio (whom Radnor directed in his 2012 "Liberal Arts" flick); John Patrick Shanley, smiling having finished the first draft of his screenplay for his 2014 Tony-nominated Outside Mullingar; Tony Shalhoub, biding his time on "Nurse Jackie" till he starts starring in Bathsheba Doran's The Mystery of Love and Sex, which will follow The Oldest Boy into the Mitzi E. Newhouse Feb. 5-July 26; The Scarlet Pimpernel (Douglas Sills), toiling over workshops of Tom Jones and My Favorite Year, Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop and Julia Murney, brushing up for a Jule Styne salute at Merkin Hall in December.