So here we are in a world class city with ever changing demographics that represent all the world. Those include refugees, immigrants and people who may practice a different faith. Thanks to Arena Stage’s recent production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced and now Round House’s engaging take on Akhtar’s sharp, biting comedy, The Who & the What, area audiences have another opportunity to witness and learn about an Islamic perspectives of life in the United States.
This comic play with a bite centers on the struggles between a traditional and demanding Pakistani-American father Afzal (Tony Mirrcandari is so likeable and generous with his upbeat disposition that even as his demands seem abusive such as telling his son-in-law Eli to “break” his wife, it can take several moments to truly sink in) and his rebellious, not easily placated daughter, Zarina (a convincing, beautifully wrought, rarely-raised voice Anu Yadav, who uses wide, splayed fingers as exclamation point when needed).
Father and daughter clash repeatedly over issues of their interpretations of critical tenants of the Islamic faith all as Zarina struggles to complete a novel about her personal outlook in depicting The Prophet Mohammed and how men and women should interact.
The volatile mix of characters and situations include a convert to Islam, Eli (portrayed by a gentle mannered Brandon McCoy with an out-of-nowhere dramatic deux-ex-machina moment fueling the show’s end notes) and Mahwish, Afzal’s younger daughter (Olivia Khoshatefeh as naïve, wide-eyed young woman still living at home, yet already well conversant in ways to keep her virginity even with the worldly sexual wants of her unseen, long-time boy-friend).
What Akhtar’s script accomplishes with the keep-it-lively touch of director Eleanor Holdridge, is to probe and thrust into conflicts about faith and the secular world with abundant humor to dissipate the drama. The dialogue is indeed earthy, sharp and often disarming as Akhtar stirs a boiling pot full of faith issues that transcend the family depicted on stage. And then comes a happy ending.
But let’s wait a moment. The Who & the What may appear to have a too-pat, wrapped-up final curtain, but dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoe tells us to be aware. Things are complicated than in his program notes, Ramsey-Zoe wrote that for those who see The Who & the What, “It is seductive to leave the play thinking that we’ve figured out something. However, in truth, Akhtar’s play continues a series of complex conversations that don’t seem to have an end in sight.” Totally true to me.
The technical design team behind the production includes set design by Luciana Stecconi with a lovely turntable driven appearance that features a contemporary kitchen to die for revolving to show lustered moving screens of subdued golden hues lit by lighting designer Nancy Schertler. Kendra Rai’s costumes give-off a properness and modesty in outward appearance for each of the characters. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design provides an entry point for the audience with his pre-show music selections of Arabic music as well as fit selections for each of the dozen or so scene changes.
The Who & the What is a way to be fully entertained while engaging with Zarina on her personal journey with her Islamic faith while trying to understand herself as a woman in America. I, for one, want to know more about Zarina’s complicated “who and what” journey. I trust playwright Akhtar will keep Zarina before us. I can only imagine we have much to learn on the journey with her.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
My DCMTA colleague David Gerson’s review of The Who & the What on DCMetroTheaterArts.