It’s practically a genre unto itself: A play where two couples spend some time together, innocuously at first, but with increasing tension as certain nerves are touched on and uncomfortable truths emerge. There’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” of course, and “God of Carnage,” and, most recently, Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is now being presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
The production, directed by Marcela Lorca — and featuring an intense, wrenching performance by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as its central character, Amir, a Pakistani-American lawyer — does justice to this powder keg of a play.
According to americantheatre.org, “Disgraced” was the most-performed play, nationally, of the 2015-16 season and is tied for second in the current season. And, given its timely subject matter, there will surely be many more productions to come. It’s doubtful that you’ll ever have a chance to see a significantly better one.
The play takes place in the handsome Manhattan apartment Amir, who has been very successful in the mergers and acquisitions field, shares with his wife, Emily (Caroline Kaplan), an artist inspired by Islamic art. Their life and their marriage seem idyllic. Yet they disagree when Amir’s nephew Abe (Adit Dileep) solicits Amir’s professional help in the case of an imam who has been arrested — unjustly, Abe believes — for supporting terrorism.
Amir, who has turned his back on Islam (he considers it a “backward” religion), doesn’t want to get involved. But Emily encourages him to.
He does, in a very limited way, but this has repercussions for him when a newspaper misleadingly makes it seem like he’s one of the imam’s attorneys. This doesn’t sit well with his superiors at the firm he works for.
All this, and more, is just the prelude, though, for the play’s long climactic scene, in which Amir and Emily invite another couple, Isaac (Kevin Isola) and Jory (Austene Van), over to dinner.
Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African-American. Also — and Akhtar could be accused of packing in too many complicating factors between these four for the play to seem realistic — Isaac is a curator at the Whitney Museum who may be interested in featuring Emily’s work in an upcoming exhibit, and Jory is a lawyer who works with Amir. Plus, there’s another layer of connection between these characters, which I won’t specify for fear of ruining one of the play’s surprises.
Amir drinks too much and says more than he should, about all kinds of things. Other tensions and prejudices surface as well.
They never get around to eating the no-doubt sumptuous dinner Emily has prepared. Amir eventually melts down completely. Both relationships wind up being strained, to put it mildly.
It isn’t pretty. But it is riveting.
“Disgraced” is at the McCarter Theatre Center through Oct. 30; visit mccarter.org.