NEW YORK (AP) — Thorny disputes can erupt when traditional religious beliefs are publicly questioned. Ayad Akhtar, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Disgraced," has written a strong, colorful new play taking on fundamentalist reactions to questions about the role of women in Islam.
Akhtar's "The Who & The What" opened Monday night in an LCT3 production at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater. Under crisp direction by Kimberly Senior, Akhtar's vibrant culture-clash drama simmers with dry humor.
A close Pakistani-American family living in Atlanta is headed by a traditional Muslim father, benevolent tyrant and widower Afzal (an intense, often wryly comical performance by Bernard White). His two adult, Americanized daughters practice their Islamic culture but are influenced by Western concepts, temptations and doubts.
Tension is created by the older daughter, scholarly and stubborn Zarina (Nadine Malouf), whose first romance was crushed by Afzal. Now she focuses on her writing, a novelized examination about women and Islam through an imagined inner life of the Prophet Muhammad. Portrayed with firm conviction by Malouf, Zarina struggles to apply her educated, feminist views to traditional stories about the Prophet that continue to shape the lives of modern Muslim women.
White happily sinks his teeth into the overbearing character of Afzal, who begs Zarina to go on dates for "your lying and manipulative father" after she learns he's been pretending to be her on dating websites. Like Afzal, impatient younger sister Mahwish (sweetly portrayed by Tala Ashe) wants Zarina to find happiness by getting married and having children, so she can do the same.
To appease them, Zarina goes on a date with Eli, a white American convert to Islam, (Greg Keller), whose outsider perspective on traditional Islam adds another layer of complexity to the drama. Eli, a studious man, understands Zarina's questioning search for the truth about the Prophet, but doesn't realize how far she's taking it.
Malouf gives a lovely portrayal of an outspoken, smart woman intensely determined to follow her own beliefs. But when Zarina's manuscript is completed, it ignites a conflict within the family that quickly threatens to go nuclear. In a particularly incendiary and well-directed scene in the second act, Afzal fiercely decries the book as a betrayal of Islam and of him, and even Eli is alarmed at the prospect of retaliation from within their Muslim community.
The beautiful carved wooden backdrop by Jack Magaw lends a timeless, Middle Eastern air to the contrasting views clashing onstage. While the ending seems a bit contrived, Akhtar's characters and dialogue are convincingly real, and his play is a thoughtful examination of how one family's conflict mirrors larger societal issues.