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Theatre review: Disgraced - When the melting pot boils over

A raw, Pulitzer-winning view of American multicultural tensions crosses the Atlantic in style

Amir had a Muslim surname, but has changed it to Kapoor. He has also fudged whether his parents came from Pakistan or India and spurned his mother's virulent anti-Semitism. Now a dapper New York attorney – more than a decade after 9/11 – he scorns Islam as backward and chauvinist.

He finds himself incensed, nonetheless, by colleagues' enquiries about his supposed hidden sympathies in Disgraced. That's not to mention Isaac, the gallery owner who has taken a shine to Amir's wife, Emily. She's a liberal, Wasp artist who admires and imitates Islamic art for its serenity. She's also pushing her husband to defend a local imam who is at risk of incarceration without due process.

American writer Ayad Akhtar's depiction of troubled multiculturalism has been awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. His souring dinner-party debate may be a rather obvious set-up, yet it becomes psychologically complex, revealing and ferociously raw. Disgraced unearths old ethnic hostilities and supremacist urges, within the domestic arena, that few plays have dared to vent.

Rising director Nadia Fall's UK premiere merits a transfer to the National, with its excellent cast including Hari Dhillon as the ultimately distraught Amir, Kirsty Bushell as Emily, and Danny Ashok as his alarmingly radicalised nephew.

In Yellow Face (Park90, Park Theatre, London ****), the Obie-winning Asian-American writer David Henry Hwang explores racial issues by presenting us with a fantastic autobiographical docudrama. This is a satire – a knowingly self-undermining one – which raises profound questions about how we categorise ourselves and others, and about individuals' confused mix of political correctness, yearning for assimilation and persistent prejudices.

It begins with Hwang onstage (played by Kevin Shen) as he becomes a high-profile protester, stopping Jonathan Pryce being cast as the Eurasian lead in Miss Saigon on Broadway in 1990. Soon Shen's Hwang is squirming, trying to suppress the fact that he has blindly miscast a non-Asian actor, Marcus, in a Chinese-American role in his own play, Face Value. Forced to pretend that he is of Sino-Siberian stock, Marcus (Ben Starr) proceeds to live that lie, becoming a star-campaigner against bigotry on behalf of the Asian community. The playwright reviles Marcus, only to be caught up – via his immigrant banker dad – in the election-financing controversy of 1996, which unleashed a wave of anti- Chinese xenophobia.

A rapid-fire mix of answer-machine messages and late-night calls, arm-twisting interviews, newspaper reports and noxious pronouncements from Republican senators, Yellow Face is a chamber play that encompasses global issues while remaining intimate and entertaining. Its British premiere is a theatrical coup, opening the 90-seat studio space at north London's new Park Theatre. Alex Sims's production boasts a fine ensemble – including David Yip – swapping roles as they dart round a tiny, glowing stage under paper lanterns. Recommended.

The consequences of fibbing are comparatively trivial in Relatively Speaking (Wyndham's, London ****), a 1967 comedy by Alan Ayckbourn. London bedsit dweller, Ginny has a new boyfriend, Greg, who is keen to tie the knot. But, she has been having a fling with her boss, Philip, and dashes off to his house in leafy Buckinghamshire, claiming to be visiting her parents.

Philip's wife, Sheila, is unexpectedly at home, and when Greg also turns up – to ask Ginny's supposed father for permission to marry – the misconstrued exchanges proliferate. Indeed, so many sticks are grasped by the wrong end that the two-timers' piled-high fabrications feel like a game of spillikins, miraculously not collapsing.

Lindsay Posner's revival is certainly enjoyable. Designer Peter McKintosh whisks Ginny's poky flat from under your nose and pulls a redbrick house – complete with patio – from up his sleeve. Jonathan Coy's Philip is very amusing, trying to play it cool then exploding in jealous fits. Felicity Kendal is charming as the politely bewildered Sheila. However, Kara Tointon sometimes rattles through her lines, while Max Bennett contrives to endow Greg with initial flashes of possessive ardour before his character shallows out. It is relatively superficial in the end.

Finally, a reminder that I've also been tweeting on Life and Times, Parts 1-5, imported from Manhattan by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Search for Kate Bassett @tabs12345 on Twitter for my coverage of this marathon show, from 1.30pm yesterday to 1.30am this morning.


'Disgraced' to 29 June; 'Yellow Face' to 16 Jun; 'Relatively Speaking' to 31 Aug

Critic's Choice

Conor McPherson's wonderful The Weir – set in an isolated Irish pub – is funny and tender, if not hair-raisingly eerie, with Brian Cox and Ardal O'Hanlon at London's Donmar (to 8 Jun). Barrie Rutter plays the bullying patriarch in Rutherford and Son, Githa Sowerby's portrait of a Victorian, factory-owning dynasty. Jonathan Miller's revival is at York Theatre Royal (Tues to Sat) before its West End run.