Comedian Aasif Mandvi is compelling in new play about Islam and identity, past and present

NEW YORK — “Disgraced,” which opened on Monday night at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater in a sleek production directed by Kimberly Senior, is a continuously engaging, vitally engaged play about thorny questions of identity and religion in the contemporary world, with an accent on the incendiary topic of how radical Islam and the terrorism it inspires have affected the public discourse. In dialogue that bristles with wit and intelligence, Mr. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, puts contemporary attitudes toward religion under a microscope, revealing how tenuous self-image can be for people born into one way of being who have embraced another.

The lead character, a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer in New York, is played by Aasif Mandvi, the very funny correspondent on Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” Here Mandvi shows a dramatic depth and perceptiveness his TV fans likely never have seen before. (But he’s not new to the stage; he’s also the writer of the Obie Award-winning play “Sakina’s Restaurant.”)

Every exchange, however innocent, seems to reflect the uneasy state of Amir’s identity. He and Emily are serving pork tenderloin and chorizo for dinner, along with a fabulous fennel-anchovy salad. He disses Islam while Isaac defends it. Amir: “Islam is a backward way of thinking.” Isaac: “It happens to be one of the world’s great spiritual traditions.”

But then there’s a sudden turn. Talk of 9/11, of Israel and Iran, of terrorism and airport security, all evokes uncomfortable truths. Add a liberal flow of alcohol and a couple of major secrets suddenly revealed, and you’ve got yourself one dangerous dinner party.

In the end, one can debate what the message of the play really is. Is it that we cannot escape our roots, or perhaps simply that we don’t ever really know who we are, deep down, until something forces us to confront it?