By Mike Hoban
‘The Who & the What’ – Written by Ayad Akhtar; Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara; Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco; Costume Design by Mary Lauve; Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand; Sound Design by M.L. Dogg, and Original Music by Saraswathi Jones. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., Boston through May 7
“Anything worth believing in, is worth questioning,” a friend with a healthy skepticism of all things institutional once told me. That thought came to mind while watching “The Who & the What,” the intense but often comical drama now being staged by the Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion. And while questioning long held beliefs that are accepted as truth – particularly those of the religious sort – may be a healthy intellectual exercise and a path to true wisdom, challenging the belief systems of others usually has consequences, as it does for the central character in this very funny and thoughtful play.
Penned by Ayad Akhtar, whose brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced” was also mounted by the Huntington last year and earned well-deserved critical acclaim, “The Who & the What,” focuses not on the political aspects of what it means to be Muslim in America (as “Disgraced” did), but what it means to be part of a Muslim family that lives in America – with a father steeped in the cultural mores of his native Pakistan exerting his heavy-handed patriarchal influence over his daughters in 21st century Atlanta. In some respects, the father-daughter relationships in “The Who & The What” are similar to “Fiddler on the Roof”, where another well-intentioned and loving but extremely conservative dad risks losing the love of his daughters if he doesn’t learn to change, or at least bend a little.
Told over the course of a few years, the story involves Zarina (Aila Peck), a Harvard-educated writer who is suffering from writer’s block in her attempt to finish a book on “gender politics” that focuses on women and Islam. Her younger sister Mahwish (Turna Mete), wants her to find a husband so that she can then marry her childhood sweetheart (as is custom), although she seems to be a bit crushy towards Manuel, her hunky GRE instructor. As this conversation is transpiring, their father Afzal (Rom Barkhordar) is taking matters into his own hands, setting up a profile for Zarina on Muslimlove.com (soon to be a real app – Google it), and pre-screening prospective suitors. In a hilariously uncomfortable scene, he manages to snare Eli, a (white) American convert to Islam, who runs a soup kitchen at the local mosque. Zarina and Eli meet and fall in love, her writer’s block evaporates – and then we get to the true crux of the play.
The book that Zarina is writing is one that seeks too “humanize” the Prophet Muhammad, and anyone who remembers the controversies surrounding Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” or Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” knows that questioning religious doctrine – no matter how antithetical it is to the intended message – is an invitation to battle for the true believers. So when her husband (who is also the Imam at the local mosque) and her conservative father read the manuscript, all hell breaks loose within the family, and the story switches gears from cute comedy to explosive drama. Without giving too much away, some of Zarina’s motivation for questioning the interpretation of the Koran may be fueled by a deep hurt inflicted upon her by her father’s devotion to his faith. In addition to adding depth to the narrative, it helps keeps the play focused on the familial relationships rather than the larger picture of the institutionalized dehumanization of women by some the world’s most prominent religions.
While the family conflicts never reach the horrifying levels of combustion seen in “Disgraced” last year, it doesn’t mean that “Who” lacks weight. Rom Barkhordar’s performance, where he transforms from portraying a wildly over-the-top meddling father into a raging inferno of a religious zealot, is brilliant, and we honestly wonder whether he’s going to erupt into physical violence or merely suffer a brain aneurysm when he confronts his daughter and her husband. The performances of the cast are uniformly solid, with Peck deserving kudos in the role of the resolute Zarina, Joseph Maretta as the nerdy Eli who discovers his backbone, and Mete as the ditzy sister. The performances are complemented by a terrific music score by Saraswathi Jones between scene changes, and the set design by the consistently brilliant Cristina Todesco is both beautiful and functional.
It’s worth noting that the play was written in 2014, long before the flames of hatred towards Muslims began being fanned during the past election. So those expecting the intensity of “Disgraced” may be a bit disappointed, but it’s not fair to compare this work to what may have been the best play of 2016 in Boston. But “The Who and the What” stands on its own and works really well as a thought-provoking comic drama. For more info, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2016-2017/the-who-and-the-what/