What is a Muslim? What is a man?

What is a Muslim? That is the underlying question of “Disgraced,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that just opened straight from Broadway at the Cell Theater in Downtown Albuquerque.

But I suggest changing the question, for this is a play in which Amir (John San Nicolas) stands in for Everyman: What is a man? Is he his nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, name, Social Security number? What if he changes all of these? Then, what is he?

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Photo by Richard K. Hogle

When the disguise falls away, what is left? Is there a remnant of identity, a core of character that still survives? The answer of this tragedy is yes, although it takes Amir’s thorough-going disgrace to find it amid the quagmire of what his friends repeatedly call his “self-hatred.”

Amir is born in the U.S., is not an Arab, does not accept Islam, does not attend a Mosque, read the Koran, pray or even believe in Allah. He drinks alcohol and eats pork. He lies about his parents’ native country, alters his name and arranges to get a new Social Security number. As a lawyer, he shuns Muslim clients. Until things start to go wrong—and ultimately everything does—he is headed toward becoming a partner in a prominent Jewish law firm.

“Disgraced” is set on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and I saw it Friday, on the 14th anniversary of that infamous date. Although the annual memorials for the nearly 3,000 people who died then have become formal government-sponsored rites rather than the heart-rending outpourings of emotional masses, it still was a sobering date on which to see this remarkable and thought-provoking tragedy.

The five characters are about as ethnically diverse as imaginable—an American Jew (Gregory Wagrowski), the Pakistani-American lawyer Amir, an African-American woman lawyer (Angela Littleton), a blond middle-class Anglo artist wife (Celia Schaefer) and a young Pakistani with a green card (Samuel James Shoemaker-Trejo). What they have in common, besides financial success and intellectuality, is their striving to find a place in the oddly assorted society called America.

At the heart of this struggle is Amir, a prosperous, ambitious middle-aged lawyer. He works for an elite Jewish New York law firm and is married to a white American artist and lives in a fine upper East Side New York City apartment. His life is, in every way, good. Everything about it is good, that is, except for what is inside his head.

Despite changing his identity in every conceivable way, is he still in some sense a Muslim? Islam, which, like Christianity before the Reformation and Buddhism before the split into Hinayana and Mahayana branches (and perhaps like that secular religion called communism before the division between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks) in theory sees itself as a universal religion. But in practice each country has its own Islam, its own customs, rules and laws; and Islam’s sects, from Sufi to Salafi, Sunni to Shi’a, are at least as bitterly divided as Protestants and Catholics, Quakers and Baptists, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox, Unitarians and holy rollers.

Against this complex and little-understood background, playwright Aya Akhtar has constructed an intimate one-act drama climaxing with a small dinner party. During their wide-ranging discussion of art, the Koran and the law, hidden elements of Amir’s personality leap out of his carefully camouflaged persona. He is not at all what you see.

The action is propelled when it emerges that a New York imam is on trial as an alleged financier of terrorists. Amir’s nephew and wife pressure him to support the imam, whom they believe to be falsely accused. Amir ultimately settles for a kind of half-way supporting role, which nevertheless gets him in all kinds of hot water and helps provoke his undoing.

But that is only one layer of Amir’s tragedy. An early argument over the Koran’s attitude toward wife beating is like Chekhov’s famous dictum that a gun on the wall in the first act will go off in the third act.

The culmination of Amir’s “disgrace” however, is probably when he is pushed to the reluctant and shocking admission that he takes “pride” in the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. No, this man is not at all what he has seemed.

The production by the Fusion company is as adept as any I have ever seen in Albuquerque, as good as any on any stage in any city.

Director Jacqueline Reid, a founder of the Fusion, has done a skilled job of letting the story unfold at a leisurely pace that allows the characters to hint, with a nice combination of obviousness and subtlety, at the forthcoming tragedy.

Nicolas’s Amir is the perpetual cynosure of the play, a man flailing and failing to know himself.

Schaefer depicts, in her own different way, an artist as ambitious and driven as her lawyer husband Amir. She pulls off a difficult transformation from stylish, sexy and supportive in the first scene to aging, careworn and defeated in the last scene.

Littleton’s black lawyer develops as a tough and successful woman disguised in the body of a loud and flaunting boor. Wagrowski, a veteran of many performances in Albuquerque and elsewhere, makes his Jewish museum curator into a character of cynical depth and supercilious surprises.

And Sjoemaker-Trejo, who is only a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, displays surprising maturity as Amir’s nephew and, in some ways, his foil.

“Disgraced” continues through Sept. 26. The Sept. 23 and 24 performances will be pay-what-you-will. The last performance will be at the Lensic in Santa Fe. For tickets and information go to fusionnm.org or fusionabq.org, or call 766-9412.