When playwright Ayad Akhtar approached the Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi about starring in his new play, Disgraced, Mandvi didn’t hesitate for a moment. A veteran actor and writer, Mandvi massaged his work schedule to find time to portray Amir Kapoor, a Pakistani-American striver working in a corporate law firm where he is one of the few non-Jews. “When he reached out to me two years ago with the script I just said ‘Wow,’” Mandvi said over grapefruit, turkey sausages and black tea at an Upper West Side diner recently.
Disgraced brings to a rolling boil the issues of, identity, racism, marital infidelity and the high cost of ethnic assimilation. Amir, who has changed his name and birthright to become more acceptable in the corporate world, is married to Emily (Heidi Armbruster) a blue-eyed, blond artist drawn to Islamic tradition. The couple live in an Upper East Side apartment that hits all the right luxury notes. Amir’s penchant for expensive trappings extends to the $600 shirts in his wardrobe.
When the couple hosts a dinner party for friends – the Jewish art curator Issac (Erik Jensen) and his wife, Jory (Karen Pittman), an African-American lawyer who works with Amir – the story begins to ignite. The evening starts brightly with fennel salad, crusty artisan bread, wine and dessert from the trendy Magnolia Bakery. But conversation quickly turns sour as secrets and subterfuge are unmasked.
A subplot emerges centering on Amir’s young relative Abe (a terrific Omar Maskati), and Amir is thrust into an uncomfortably high-profile position in a case involving an imam.
“There is a shared cultural background between me and Amir, except my family is more liberal and secular,” said Mandvi, who was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and raised in England before moving to Florida and then Manhattan. “As a Muslim-American, I became very attached to this play and I consider myself lucky to be in it.”
A playwright himself, Mandvi wrote and performed in his Obie-winning autobiographical play SAKINA’S RESTAURANT and has performed in scores of plays and movies in addition to television. When he auditioned for The Daily Show in 2006, he was hired on the spot, went directly to rehearsal and appeared that evening.
The Disgraced production opened in Chicago with a younger cast, but the decision was made to go older in New York. “I think it works better as couples in their 30s instead of their 20s,” Mandvi said.
“This has been a fascinating journey watching the audiences react to the play,” he said. “There’s been incredibly emotional responses—people are provoked, some cry, and I think what the play does is brilliant.” The focus shifts from character to character, and it never settles on just one point of view, Mandvi said. “The ground is constantly shifting, and you can feel the audience’s energy. In the play, everybody is right and everybody is wrong.
“The play ultimately portrays a very complicated world view—things are not what they seem,” Mandvi said. “It presents a tapestry of perspective; the lens is put on many different angles. You can almost see the tribal roots of the characters: they are sophisticated and educated and integrated as much as can be. But when push comes to shove we devolve into our roots,” he said. “The play doesn’t answer questions about what we believe, what do we fight for. It raises them.”
Disgraced is not just a show about Muslim-Americans, he stressed, it’s a post-colonialist allegory; it shows what happens in the world. “When Amir is the only one to honestly express what he truly feels about the 9/11 attacks, it’s like he is confessing a dark secret,” he said. “Sometimes audiences are so moved by the final scene they don’t even clap.”
The play doesn’t have an agenda, Mandvi continued. “It’s a complicated play about complicated people.”
Disgraced delivers an emotional wallop that resonates long after the curtain closes. “The way this play moves is very fast and you can’t prepare for the ending,” Mandvi said. “The bravery of the play is that it is both critical and respectful. You just have to get on the train and let it take you on the journey.”