IT HAS BEEN decades since the United States was as ethnically and racially polarized as it is now.

Between Donald Trump's threats to round up 11 million Mexicans, the "Black Lives Matter" movement ignited by a seemingly unending series of tragic encounters between law-enforcement personnel and young African-Americans, and the still-festering post-9/11 paranoia and Islamophobia, a drama about racial, religious and ethnic identity and the "us-and-them" distrust of all things Arab or Islamic is certainly timely.

Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced" definitely earns points for its willingness to confront such issues in a way that will likely make some people uncomfortable. But, while the play, which Wednesday night kicked off Philadelphia Theatre Company's 41st season, offers plenty of verbiage on the subjects of racism, ethnic identity and America's centuries-old love-hate relationship with immigration, it never gets a convincing grip on them.

The one-act, 85-minute piece, which runs through Nov. 8, plays out entirely on Jason Simms' realistic rendering of a posh Upper East Side apartment. Its owners are Amir and Emily, a yuppified couple who seem to have the world by the tail.

Amir (played by Pej Vahdat, of TV's "Bones" fame) is a Pakistani-born "apostate" Muslim who ostensibly has forsaken the religion of his ancestors and seamlessly assimilated. That he works for a big-deal law firm founded by Jews is evidence of Amir's assumed renunciation of his spiritual upbringing. But nothing is ever as it seems where Amir is concerned.

His wife, Emily (Monette Magrath), is what author Philip Roth would have called a "shiksa goddess." She's a blonde WASP and an up-and-coming artist with an abiding interest in, of all things, Islamic art and culture.

They seem to lead a blessed life - until, at the urging of his on-the-road-to-radicalization teenage nephew (who has assumed the nom de America "Abe Jensen") - Amir agrees to be one of a number of lawyers at the hearing of a neighborhood imam jailed on charges of funneling charitable donations to Hamas.

A subsequent New York Times article erroneously implies that Amir is the attorney-of-record for the suspect, and Amir's life begins its inevitable unraveling.

The plot is further complicated by the play's other two characters, the married couple Isaac and Jory. Isaac (Ben Graney) is a nonobservant Jewish art dealer intending to promote Emily's works. African-American Jory (Aime Donna Kelly) is a co-worker of Amir's whose career is headed in the opposite direction of his.

The two couples get together for what is supposed to be a celebratory dinner party (Isaac has finally agreed to give Emily a show). It quickly disintegrates into an orgy of recrimination, repressed prejudices set loose and, for good measure, some good, old-fashioned infidelity.

A lot of verbiage - including the N-word - is flung before the somewhat predictable denouement. But because Akhtar's script is wider than it is deep, and because the four main characters are all, in their own ways, unsympathetic and even unlikable, it's difficult to really care about their trials and tribulations.

The cast is perfectly fine, if a little mannered and stagy (Mary B. Robinson's direction is solid, but mostly by-the-numbers). Vahdat does most of the heavy lifting as Amir, but he never gets fully lost in his character. The best of the lot opening night was Kelly, who played Jory as a real firecracker, and made her the most three-dimensional of the program's characters.

Occasionally, she and Graney's Isaac engaged in some funny, sitcom-style husband-and-wife bickering that gave the very serious script a much-needed goosing. But these interludes were far too brief and scarce, and were ultimately swallowed whole by the play's striving for gravitas and important thoughts.

Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., through Nov. 8, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 1 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and

8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, $24-$62, 215-985-0420,

Lantern ups the ante

Center City's Lantern Theater Company has announced a four-year program dubbed the "Artist Fair Pay Initiative."

The plan, jump-started by a $200,000 grant from the Wyncote Foundation, immediately provides a 50-percent pay raise for performers and behind-the-scene operatives participating in Lantern productions.

"We hope that better pay will encourage these artists to remain in the field and to stay in Philadelphia, where they make such enormous contributions to the region's economy and quality of life," said a Lantern website posting.

To help cover the other $300,650 to $390,000 required through the 2019-'20 season, Lantern is soliciting donations. Find more info at

High times in Bristol

That sound emanating from the north is the popping of corks by the folks at Bristol Riverside Theatre. They're celebrating the 2014-'15 season - which included a wonderful production of "Ragtime" - as the most successful in the company's 29-year-history.

According to BRT, attendance was higher than ever, with a 14 percent increase in the subscription base and a 17 percent jump in overall paid attendance over 2013-14.

"Always . . . Patsy Cline" set the record for highest advance sale in BRT history - until "Ragtime" did even better business. The Summer Musicale Fest Series likewise set sales and attendance records.

The group also succeeded artistically, copping 11 Barrymore Award nominations, its highest total ever. "Ragtime" glommed nine, including Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical and Outstanding Director of a Musical (artistic director Keith Baker).

Childs play at ComedySportz

Tomorrow, local comedy doyenne Jen Childs, of 1812 Productions fame and fun, will join forces with the folks at ComedySportz, the group that presents its improv comedy in a sports-competition format.

Aiding and abetting Childs in her mirth and merriment will be such 1812 partners-in-crime as Dave Jadico, Mary Carpenter, Noah Herman and Fred Seigel.

ComedySportz, 2030 Sansom St., 7:30 and 10 p.m. tomorrow, $18 (discounts avail.),

On Twitter: @chuckdarrow