Saturday, 21 June 2014

Ayad Akhtar's THE WHO AND THE WHAT at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theatre

     After seeing  Ayed Akhtar's thrilling play DISGRACED, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize, I was really looking forward to THE WHO AND THE WHAT. Alas, I found it repeated familiar tropes: the Muslim father dealing with progressive children, outrage at a book that could be construed as anti-Islamic, Muslim women rebelling against the religious and cultural codes imposed on them. Moreover, where DISGRACED had high dramatic stakes, THE WHO AND THE WHAT plays down the fallout from the characters' actions.
     Afzal (Bernard White) is a Pakistani who has made a fortune in the taxicab business in car-dependent Atlanta. He is an example of the American dream, moving from taxi driver to entrepreneur. After his wife died of cancer, he had to take over the raising of his two daughters now in their twenties.    Afzal has the old world idea that he has the right to run his daughters' lives, particularly their love lives. Zarina (Nadine Malouf), is exceptionally bright, a Harvard graduate, but she now lives at home and waits on her father after he broke off her relationship with an Irish-Catholic man. There's anger underneath the surface, but she keeps it in check. Mahwish (Tala Ashe), will marry the man she is supposed to marry, but she has kept him interested by offering him a form of sex that still manages to keep her virginity but certainly isn't good Islamic practice. Concerned that Zarina doesn't have a man, Afzal creates a profile for her on a Muslin dating site and interviews the candidates himself. His ideal candidate for her is Eli (Greg Keller), a white man who has converted to Islam and is Imam of a small mosque outside of Atlanta. Zarina dutifully dates Eli and eventually marries him.
     The bombshell is that Zarina has spent the past four years writing a book about the Prophet Mohammed's love life that is certain to raise a scandal and perhaps violence. Eli who dotes on his wife wants to be supportive but knows the book will cause a violent backlash and that his own position as Iman will be endangered. Afzal pilfer's Eli's copy (Afzal knows no limits when it comes to searching other people's belongings), and goes ballistic.
     Up to here I'm with the play -- with some reservations -- but Akhtar pulls his punches in the last half hour. There would be a far more violent response to Zarina's book than he gives us and the resolution seems unearned.
     One problem with the play -- and I am surprised that some dramaturg hasn't pointed this out to the playwright -- is that he is focusing the play on Afzal, but Eli is the more interesting character. Why did he convert to Islam? How does his feminism fit in with his religion. There's a scene in which Afzal tells Eli to "break" his wife, essentially to bring her to heel in a traditionally Islamic way. Eli is shocked, but how does he connect his religion with his non-Islamic view of women? Why does he support his wife, when what she has written not only goes against his faith but will destroy his work? Is he really a sincere believer in Islam? We've seem versions of Afzal before -- perhaps not as charming, perhaps scarier -- but Eli could be an original, fully developed character.
     The production looks great and all four actors are excellent. I hoped that Akhtar would be as daring as he was in DISGRACED. He is trying too much to please here.
THE WHO AND THE WHAT. Lincoln Center Theater Clair Tow Theatre. June 21, 2014.

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