The Pulitzer Prize-winning DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar presented by the Huntington Theatre Company and Long Wharf  Theatre is a stellar production of an explosive piece of work. The material cuts to the quick of the racial, ethnic, religious, and social divide–embedded with assumptions, and laced with tribal allegiances; pile on the politically correct reactions triggered, and we’ve got a powder keg waiting to blow.

DISGRACED finds Wall Street lawyer Amir (Rajesh Bose) on a collision course with his Muslim roots. He has worked hard to assimilate as he ascends the corporate ladder, and is married to Emily (Nicole Lawrence) a white, blonde, blue-eyed artist of perhaps Christian orientation.

In the opening scene we find the couple in their chic NY living room where he poses(!) as she paints him in elegant jacket and white shirt from the waist up. The pose is a riff on the famous Velazquez painting of his slave Juan de Pareja elegantly dressed in aristocratic clothing.  It is no accident however, that from the waist down, Amir is in his boxers shorts; immediately we understand the play will strip these characters down to their metaphorical underwear, and things will get mighty basic before the evening’s over.

A dinner party is the mechanism where a conversation about art morphs into religion and suddenly turns ugly, as these characters begin uncovering deeply buried prejudices and assumptions about themselves and each other. The playwright has certainly loaded the deck for maximum conflict. The other couple is a Jewish art dealer named Isaac (Benim Foster) who is evaluating Emily’s latest work on Islamic art for inclusion in a new exhibition, while Isaac’s wife Jory (Shirine Babb) is a black female lawyer and colleague in Amir’s firm. The evening rapidly devolves into a brutal argument in which each character challenges the other until they scuffle at the most primitive level and revert to their tribal allegiances.

The actors are all in and the action quickly gathers visceral momentum. The initially edgy Amir starts at a low boil, but quickly turns ferociously defensive and enraged. Emily who seems intent on keeping a lid on things, unwittingly catalyzes the action through an naive suggestion that has destructive consequences. Isaac subtly conveys an irritating smugness that turns to loathsome self-absorption near the climax, while his cagey and ambitious wife Jory is gobsmacked by a painful revelation.

There is one more character but he seems superfluous and that is Abe– Amir’s young nephew who has changed his name from Hussein and is also a muslim in disguise, but who in the course of off-stage events finds himself angrily circling back to his roots. His role is redundant, the arc of his character underscoring what’s already been clearly conveyed.

THE ACTION BUILDS TO A BLISTERING CLIMAX THAT LEAVES THE CHARACTERS IN SHREDS. I felt myself recoil in shock and dismay, and only slightly minded being so manipulated. These characters do leap to the most damaging conclusions quickly, and regress a bit too suddenly, but the terrain they mine warrants getting worked up over. How do we assimilate without hating ourselves or betraying our histories?  Not only is the play about the gap between what people assume about you and who you really are, but at a deeper level it’s an examination of optics, and the role artists play in showing us what we see and how we see it. At one point Emily the artist observes that we’ve “forgotten how to really look at things the way they are.”

Director Gordon Edelstein orchestrates this stormy play and its final moments to perfection–and it’s a startling and rueful epiphany. The finished painting of Amir is silently revealed and we see the portrait of a man trapped by birth and historical circumstance, like Velazquez slave, captured in all his rage and sorrow on canvas, his truth flowing far beyond its borders.

You must see DISGRACED at the Huntington through Feb 7!