Art has been mirroring life in more ways than one for Hari Dhillon, the star of Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which opens at the Lyceum Theatre on October 23.
Disgraced offers contemporary take on a dinner party from hell where two couples — Amir (Dhillon) and his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol), and Isaac (Josh Radnor) and Jory (Karen Pittman) — sit down to a meal, but find themselves in unexpected territory when politics and religion enter the conversation in a revealing way.
It marks Dhillon's Broadway debut, after he starred in the play in London in 2013. While he's a fresh face for New York audiences, the San Francisco native has spent years working on the London stage and screen, most notably on the BBC medical drama "Holby City." It was the day before rehearsals began that he learned the play had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. "It was [a] celebratory day," he says, "tempered by the fact that I think that was the day the bomb went off at the Boston Marathon In some weird way, the events that shaped the backdrop of the play were mirrored by reality."
The drama, which Dhillon likens to "a freight train," follows a fast-paced emotional journey for the two couples who, he says, "talk about all the things you shouldn't talk about: race, politics, culture, sexuality, religion."
Opening night in London continued to mirror the real world. That afternoon the Woolwich Murder took place, where two Muslim extremists killed an English paramilitary guard. "The audience came in with that as part of their daily experience," Dhillon remembers. "What was happening onstage and what was happening in the world was kind of merging… it was this insidious and hideous face of Muslim extremism. And politics like that and ideas like that thread their way into this conversation of very wealthy, well to do, young urban couples… living the American dream."
Amir's pursuit of this dream is something Dhillon recognizes. "I identify with it," he says of Amir's struggle to reconcile his heritage with his life goals, explaining where the character's family comes from and comparing it to his own. "You don't come from that part of the world and come to the States without some kind of understanding of what others may be wrestling with. While it's not something [that] has necessarily been part of my personal journey, I certainly recognize it."
Recalling the "slightly unwanted attention" he received while living in London after the September 11 attacks, Dhillon says he received a great outpouring of support, saying, "to be, all of the sudden, the focus of attention… for me, it was a positive one. Perhaps for Amir, it's more negative. It highlights the 'otherness' that all of a sudden you feel." Dhillon, whose family comes from the Indian side of Punjab, says he is frequently selected for random security checks at airports.
"Clearly, I'm the target demographic. You guys are obviously going to be looking at me. But it's hard because I very much, in the way that Amir has, have consumed the American dream whole… it's hard to have that type of attention on you."
For Dhillon, creating an original character on Broadway is part of his American dream. "I'm glad I got the opportunity to be a mouthpiece for something like this, because it means something to me personally, [it] puts this in a whole other dimension for me. That is the dream, for sure." (Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)