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Broadway Culture Shock

Ayad Akhtar's smart, provocative scripts ask tough questions of American theatergoers, and they love him for it.

Broadway is not the ideal place to talk politics. Every night, hundreds of theatergoers clog the dazzling sidewalks of Times Square in anticipation of the type of flamboyant, highly regimented performance that has come to define mainstream American theater.

And yet, on a recent Saturday, four people stood on the stage of the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street discussing the sobering topic of Islamic fundamentalism. Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced, began its run on Broadway last October after sold-out houses in Chicago, London, and New York’s Lincoln Center. The play is set inside the Upper East Side apartment of Amir, a successful lawyer, and Emily, his artist wife. Emily is American, “white, lithe, and lovely,” and her work is inspired by Islamic motifs. Amir is an apostate Muslim who views Islam as a backward way of thinking. The couple invite two friends over for dinner: Isaac, a Jewish curator at the Whitney Museum who wants Emily’s work in his next show, and Jory, Isaac's wife and Amir’s law firm colleague. Amid talk of Knicks games and fennel salads, Amir is eventually called upon to defend his problem with Islam, setting off a conversation whose trajectory draws out the hidden prejudices of everyone involved.

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