As I was leaving Round House Theatre on opening night of Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & the What, I heard one patron say to another, “Wasn’t that fabulous?” And the response was, “Yes.” I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was much better than I expected.” Don’t you just love it when a show exceeds your expectations?
Lest I get bogged down at the outset in an Abbott and Costello-type comedy routine trying to describe the who, what, why, when, where and how of this firecracker of a play which is being given as good a production as anything you might see in New York, here’s the lowdown: Get your tickets. Now!
Set in Atlanta, Mr. Akhtar’s timely comedy deals with the conflict between modern culture and tradition. Specifically, the play is about a widowed father, Afzal (Tony MIrrcandani), and his two adult daughters, Mahwish (Olivia Khoshatefeh) and Zarina (Anu Yadav), and the tension caused by Afzal’s desire to have his children lead a traditional Islamic life, and the daughters’ total assimilation in to Western culture and their own questioning of the tenets of the religion in which they were raised. This tension boils over when Zarina, a writer, finishes a controversial novel about “gender politics” and the relationship between the prophet Muhammad and one of his wives.
In an interview with PBS in 2015, Akhtar said, “[B]eing Muslim. Being American. What are the overlaps? What are the contradictions? Are those contradictions real? Are they historical? Are they passed from parent to child, or is it something much larger? Is there an inherent conflict between Islam and the West?” Heavy. Academic. Dry stuff, right? Don’t be fooled. What Akhtar and Director Eleanor Holdridge smartly do in The Who & the What is explore and mine these questions for their universal truths. This Pakistani family is both unfamiliar and familiar. They are our family. And we see that some truths transcend cultural and religious differences and that in our global community we are much more alike than not.
In many ways, they resemble any family where tradition butts heads with contemporary mores. Not only does Akhtar explore this conflict in the play, but he explores the way in which both Mahwish and Zarina deal with it in terms of their individual relationships with their father and their relationships to their faith. Adding an additional layer to the story is the introduction of a young imam, Eli (Brandon McCoy), a Caucasian convert to Islam with conflicted and modern views about religion, who becomes involved with the family.
It is said that there is truth in comedy and The Who & the What has both, in abundance. By playing the truth of these characters, the laughs come organically and with a strong sense of recognition, whether it’s the argument Eli and Zarina have over his response to her book or Afzal’s frank advice to Eli on family planning when he tells him to, “just put it in her.” The cast is top notch all around. As the brilliant daughter seeking to assert her independence, while trying to gain her father’s approval, Yadav brings a feistiness to the role that is tempered, as the play goes on, with a maturity and a recognition of the consequences of her actions.
In contrast, Khoshatefeh, a gifted comedienne, imbues Mahwish with a bit of foolishness that disguises a more deceitful nature. In her eagerness to please her father, she hides so much of who she really is. The manner in which she maintains her virginity for marriage and the scene in which that’s revealed to Afzal elicited howls from the audience! McCoy is convincing as the conflicted convert struggling to reconcile his modern views with those of his adopted faith. Mirrcandani is just wonderful as Afzal, a role he has apparently played before but nevertheless a performance that feels fresh and natural and is a perfect fit. He is funny and heartwarming and, in the final moments of the play, extremely vulnerable and touching.
To accommodate the various locales, Set Designer Luciana Stecconi has created a serious of moving panels etched with a faded Eastern design, that slide on and off, as two turntables rotate to take us from interiors to a park to a cafe as the lighting (design by Nancy Schertler) subtly shifts with nary a blackout, the totality of which gives the piece a cinematic quality allowing Holdridge’s transitions a seamlessness that keeps the action propelling forward.
Program notes tell us that Akhtar takes the title of the play from Jacques Derrida’s musings that the nature of love and being share a common root, the history of each being divided between the “who” and the “what.” Is “being” someone or something? And what of love? All of the characters struggle with this in one way or another in The Who & the What, and while the ending seems to provide resolution, perhaps it’s even a little contrived, we know that real life is never as neat and tidy. And the questions Akhtar raises linger, long after the play has ended. Eli says at one point, “Can’t you see I’m conflicted? Isn’t that what good art is supposed to do?” It is. And in The Who & the What it does.
Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.