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American Theater Co.’s ‘Disgraced’ creates a predictable chaos

'Disgraced' American Theater Company  features Benim Foster AlanArenas Usman Ally Lee Stark.

"Disgraced" at American Theater Company features Benim Foster, Alana Arenas, Usman Ally and Lee Stark.

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◆ Through Feb. 26

◆ American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron

◆ Tickets, $35-$40

◆ (773) 409-4125;

Updated: March 5, 2012 8:02AM

The fix is in from the very start for all five of the identity-warped characters in Ayad Akhtar’s play, “Disgraced,” now in its world premiere by the American Theatre Company. The play’s backdrop — an elegant contemporary living room in an upscale urban apartment — should not fool you. This well-appointed space will quickly turn into a cultural and psychological minefield — one that feels all too deliberately booby-trapped by the playwright.

The apartment is home to a brash, youthful, high-powered attorney, Amir (Usman Ally, who was so terrific as the motor-mouthed Indian-American in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”), and his artist wife, Emily (Lee Stark), a petite and pretty blonde who might easily be pegged as pure Middle-American Christian.

Though born and raised a Muslim, the happily upwardly mobile Amir is a flat-out rejectionist of his religion, which he believes was born in the desert many millennia ago, and has nothing to do with his prospering, secular self. Fiercely assimilated, he just happens to work for a Jewish law firm. His wife, with her bend-over-backwards political liberalism, is working to counter those instincts, and her art, as well as her sympathies, seem far more connected to Islam than his.

When Amir’s boyish nephew, who was born with the name Hussein, adopted the name Abe, and easily flips back to the original (he is played by Behzad Dabu), pleads with Amir to visit a local imam being held in prison, Emily goads her husband to at least meet with the man. Big mistake: The press is there to record the event and the news doesn’t sit well with his firm’s partners.

Meanwhile, Amir and Emily invite their friends, Isaac (Benim Foster), an influential museum curator who admires Emily’s Muslim-inflected paintings, and his wife, Jory (Alana Arenas is excellent here, and very funny), an attorney in the same firm as Amir, to dinner. Isaac is Jewish, but not entirely at peace with his identity either, while Jory is an African-American who grew up in a difficult neighborhood and now fully savors the good life. Dinner with friends quickly devolves into a dinner full of barely suppressed rage that explodes even before an illicit romantic relationship is revealed.

Akhtar’s 75-minute play, directed by Kimberly Senior, arrives here just as his first novel, “American Dervish” ­— a coming of age story also about cross-cultural confusion — is earning enthusiastic reviews. Born in Milwaukee to Pakistani parents, with theater degrees from both Brown and Columbia University, and work done with such luminaries as Jerzy Grotowski and Andre Gregory, Akhtar is an actor and screenwriter as well as a playwright (he co-wrote and starred in the film “The War Within,” about the making of a terrorist).

Clearly, the writer’s obsessive themes are custom-built for this moment. But the play still feels like an outline, and too often its characters function as overly neat mouthpieces that, heard in their inevitable cacophony, suggest just how twisted all forms of fundamentalism AND political correctness can become.

The play’s appealing architectural interior is the work of set designer Jack Magaw. A crucial painting by Emily (a revealing Valesquez-inspired portrait of Amir) is the work of artist Nils Folke Anderson, with some prop magic courtesy of Nick Heggestad.

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