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The masks come off in ‘Disgraced’

Huntington Theatre production looks at a man locked in an unwinnable war with himself

From left: Shirine Babb, Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance, and Benim Foster in “Disgraced.”T. Charles Erickson

There are times when you bolt out of your seat at the end of a play because watching it has been such an excruciating experience.

And then there are times, cherished by theatergoers and all too rare, when what propels you and your companion out to the sidewalk is your eagerness to continue the conversation — or argument — that was begun by the play.

Ayad Akhtar's "Disgraced'' falls into the latter category. In an era when many playwrights seldom bother to visit, much less linger in, the public sphere, Akhtar plunges right into the choppy currents of contemporary discourse and delivers a play as urgent and unignorable as a 70-point headline over a news story about the way we live now.

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Now at Huntington Theatre Company in a production directed by Gordon Edelstein, "Disgraced'' finds genuine tragedy in the spectacle of a man locked in an unwinnable war with himself, his heritage, and the assumptions the wider world makes about him.

Akhtar probes one sensitive topic after another as the well-ordered existence of a Pakistani-American corporate attorney named Amir (Rajesh Bose) spirals out of control in "Disgraced'': the teachings of Islam, the rise of Islamophobia, and the complications of being a Muslim in America at this particular moment; race relations; identity politics; 9/11 and terrorism generally; immigration and assimilation; Israel's symbolic significance and military might; the emergence of the surveillance state; and the way a single paragraph in a single newspaper article can upend your entire life.

But Akhtar is not simply checking off boxes and pushing hot buttons in "Disgraced,'' which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Instead, he's holding up an X-ray of the modern psyche, with all its contradictions, and challenging us to look at it as closely as he does.

A lot of external forces are sharing space with Amir and his white wife, Emily (Nicole Lowrance), in their stylish New York apartment (the set is designed by Lee Savage). Amir has decisively turned his back on his Muslim roots and even goes so far as to describe the Koran as "like one very long hate-mail letter to humanity,'' while Emily, a painter, has embarked on a series of works inspired by Islamic art and spiritual traditions. Among the many thought-provoking issues percolating within "Disgraced'' is the question of when working within cultural traditions that are not your own crosses the line from homage to appropriation.

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Amir's troubles begin when, at the urging of his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam), he pays a visit in jail to an imam accused — unjustly, the nephew insists — of helping to raise money for terrorists, then attends the imam's court hearing. When The New York Times quotes Amir saying something supportive and names his law firm, so it appears that he is part of the imam's defense team, his firm's partners are none too happy. Amir's origins start to come under scrutiny, and his once-solid grip on the American dream starts to get wobbly.

There is something overly schematic in the four-way collision engineered by Akhtar at a dinner party among Amir, Emily, and their married friends Isaac (Benim Foster), a Jewish art dealer who represents Emily, and Jory (Shirine Babb), an African-American attorney who works with Amir. At roughly 85 minutes, "Disgraced'' feels a bit rushed. In addition, the staging of the climactic scene is clumsy at the Huntington, somewhat diminishing the shattering impact that episode had in the Broadway production. While the performances in "Disgraced'' are solid across the board, none can really be described as inspired.

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But in this case the play's the thing, and it's not often that a play of ideas generates and sustains as much suspense as "Disgraced'' does. The suspense lies not just within the classic parameters of what-will-happen-next but also in prompting the audience to wonder what Akhtar will tell us next about ourselves and what we're capable of in our worst moments, once the social masks have melted away.

If what you look for in theater is originality of mind, perceptiveness of insight, and fearlessness of outlook, Akhtar is a writer who will give you something to talk about.

DISGRACED

Play by Ayad Akhtar

Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company in association with Long Wharf Theatre

At BU Theatre through Feb. 7. Tickets $25-$99, 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.