NEW YORK — Playwright Ayad Akhtar follows up his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced (scheduled for a Broadway run this fall) with another exploration of Muslim Americans wrestling with the culture clash between traditional Islamic beliefs and modern American society. But while his previous play—about a Pakistani-American lawyer who finds his hard-earned efforts at assimilation suddenly falling apart—crackled with a sustained tension, The Who & the What suffers from a tonal imbalance in which its attempts at comic relief detract from its undeniably relevant and powerful themes. Despite its provocative premise and often witty dialogue, the play never quite coheres in sufficiently compelling fashion.
The play begins lightheartedly as we’re introduced to widowed patriarch Afzal (Bernard White) and his two grown daughters Mahwish (Tala Ashe) and Zarina (Nadine Malouf). Afzal is the highly successful owner of an Atlanta taxicab company whose ubiquitous ads have made him a local celebrity. Traditionalist-minded Mahwish is eager to get married, but feels compelled to wait until her older sibling does so first.
Unfortunately, Zarina shows no such implication, still resenting her father for having forbidden her engagement to a Catholic man years earlier. So Afzal takes matters into his own hands, surreptitiously placing a personal ad for her on a Muslim dating website and even meeting one of its responders, Eli (Greg Keller), an American who’s converted to Muslim and who runs a small mosque and soup kitchen. The comic scene has Afzal asking the potential suitor such loaded questions as, “Are you a pervert?” and “How much money do you make?”
Initially aghast at her father’s deception, Zarina becomes intrigued when she realizes that she met Eli previously at a lecture given by famed activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The two go out on a date which begins awkwardly, but it isn’t long before sparks begin to fly.
The play’s chief dramatic tension springs from a novel that Zarina has been working on for years: a revisionist, sexually graphic portrait of the prophet Mohammed and his relationship with his seventh wife. Examining the ways in which Islam subjugates women, including forcing them to wear veils, its controversial themes prompt Afzal to forcefully renounce his daughter and refuse any further contact with her.
Alternating between comedy and melodrama and featuring an incongruously sentimental conclusion, the play lacks the dramatic tension of its predecessor, at times resembling a multi-cultural sitcom. Although individual moments are sometimes effective, the pacing and progression feel off, especially in the climactic scene which takes place two years after the main action. Director Kimberly Senior, who also staged Disgraced, displays a less sure hand with this more problematic work, although she’s elicited strong performances, especially from the male leads (admittedly, their characters are more intriguingly complex).
Despite its flaws, The Who & the What is to be commended for tackling themes too rarely addressed in contemporary dramas. While his Pulitzer Prize was perhaps a bit premature, Akhtar is definitely a playwright whose future work merits significant attention.
Cast: Tala Ashe, Greg Keller, Nadine Malouf, Bernard White
Playwright: Ayad Akhtar
Director: Kimberly Senior
Set designer: Jack Magaw
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater