By ROB WEINERT-KENDT
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles
It's clearly been a very bad day. Amir (Hari Dhillon) doesn't so much enter his dusk-lit apartment as storm it, quickly loosening his tight corporate-lawyer tie and pouring himself a stiff drink. His wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) isn't home, and somehow, that only intensifies his anxious, angry pacing. He stomps out onto the terrace, sips his drink… then hurls his cocktail glass against the wall, shattering it to pieces. He comes back and pours himself another round.
Soon enough, Emily, a visual artist, arrives with some last-minute groceries, reminding Amir that a couple of friends are on their way over for a significant soiree. The guests are Amir's co-workers and her curator husband, who may have big news about Emily's inclusion in a new Whitney exhibit. And thus the table is set for a familiar theatrical battle scene: The Dinner Party From Hell. No more glasses will be smashed, but the lives of all the diners will be significantly dented.
Though all four share some blame for the collision, Amir's rage is the engine that drives the long, volatile third scene of Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced
, now at the Lyceum Theatre.
So one obvious question for Dhillon would be: What does he do as an actor to psych himself up before coming onstage?
"The writing is so tight, there's never a point where I have to stand off to the side and rev up my own personal motives," says Dhillon, who, though American-born-and-raised, is better known in England as heartthrob doctor Michael Spence on the BBC series Holby City
. "The train ride feels kind of inexorable. I never feel like, 'On Line X, I have to do this.'
"In any case, much of the fuel for the evening's conflict is buried, Dhillon explains.
"Amir is driving toward something unconsciously, fired by his meeting that day" with partners at his law firm, in which they pointedly questioned his South Asian heritage and his ostensible defense of a radical imam. Meanwhile, the "three other people at dinner are having the best day of their lives, arguably--and strangely, you have this guy Amir clinging onto this party not out of celebration but out of desperation. That's why he's kind of pushing this thing forward."
The "thing" Amir is pushing forward is an ugly, tendentious discussion of Islam, the religion he was raised in but has fundamentally rejected. It comes up not only because his own background has been queried by his co-workers---many of whom, he is all too quick to note, are Jewish---but also because his wife's newest paintings are based on classic Islamic artisanship of the pre-Columbian age. So while he faces suspicion for his religious heritage at work, at home he's faced with liberals rhapsodizing about a faith he feels has only held him back. It's no wonder he blows his top---though no one, least of all himself, can be sure what will bubble out.
"It's tapped into a layer that's just a hair's breadth underneath the skin," says Dhillon of the scene. "And when that layer gets stripped back, not just Amir but all of them kind of revert to a tribal identity." It may come flooding back most fiercely for Amir, though, because he's tried to run so far from it. As Dhillon notes, "Amir is grasping at every kind of icon of Western success."
Akhtar has seen at least three actors embody Amir: Usman Ally at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Aasif Mandvi at Lincoln Center, and now Dhillon, who also played the part last year in London.
"Each of the fellows who's played Amir have revealed aspects to me," Akhtar says by email. "Hari has brought a distinctly American charm--corporate, confident--which is married to both a legal precision and a furious abandon as the play unfolds. If, as a recent piece in Salon
suggested, being Muslim in America today is to be a signifier for other people's prejudice, Hari's Amir---a shape-shifter par excellence---is that ultimate cipher."
Akhtar has said in previous interviews that the play's intention is to make all of us face our complicity in our heritage and history---even, or perhaps especially, the parts we think we've rejected. In that spirit, Dhillon points out that he was raised as a Sikh, a minority religion in India that has seldom fared well under Muslim rule. "Growing up, who was Public Enemy No. 1 for me? Muslims," says Dhillon. "This play made me tap into it and realize: I have a certain point of view."
That's congruent with the main notion Amir is arguing throughout that compellingly awful dinner party scene.
"He's taking on the strain of liberal thought that says, 'We're all just people, can't we all just accept each other as people?'" Dhillon says. "Yes, we can. After we admit to ourselves that we have deeply held tribal feelings."
Rob Weinert-Kendt is a senior editor at American Theatre and writes regularly about theatre for the New York Times
Photo by Joan Marcus