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The Who & The What

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tala Ashe, Bernard White, Nadine Malouf, and Greg Keller
Photo by Erin Baiano

When it comes to stories about major religious figures, which is truer, the fact or the fiction? Though this question may appear simple, it's not, as Ayad Akhtar details with his new play The Who & The What, which just opened in an LCT3 production at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. Given enough years, or perhaps eons, of retelling and relating, folklore might come to mean far more than the truth, which is naturally going to be an enormous problem for someone who's more interested in that.

That someone, in this case, is Zarina (Nadine Malouf), a 32-year-old Arab-American woman who's struggling to live a more liberal Muslim life in her family's conservative Atlanta household. Her wealthy father, Afzal (Bernard White), owns 30 percent of the city's taxis, and her sister, Mahwish (Tala Ashe), is 25 years old and ready to wed her childhood boyfriend, Haroun, though Zarina still being single poses something of a problem for Dad. Not that Zarina agrees with him, about that or pretty much anything else.

But what chafes most for Zarina is one particular tradition, stretching back a millennium and change to when the Prophet Muhammad married his seventh wife, which inadvertently led to women's wearing the hijab (or veil) over their face for centuries to come. Afzal never made his daughters do it, but for her whole life Zarina's been incensed at the idea—and the devotion surrounding what she views as a mistake borne of the Prophet's frustration—that she's written a novel that paints Muhammad as, above all, a man, and an imperfect one at that.

"I'm using that day to show the different influences on the Prophet's life," Zarina explains. "And how the Quran is the result of all these very human things that are happening to him. His problems with his wives, his community, his own anxieties... In a lot of ways, I think it might make more sense to see the Quran more as coming from Muhammad than God." But for the people who love Muhammad, or at least the version of him that they know through their own worship, this risks angering many people, starting with those in Zarina's own family.

Even this just skims the surface of Akhtar's surprisingly complex play, which is as interested in the convoluted identities of its present-day characters and their relationship to Islam. Zarina's and Afzal's are well established, but Mahwish has gone to elaborate lengths to keep herself pure on a technicality in advance of her marriage. And a man Afzal wants to set up with Zarina, Eli (Greg Keller), is a white convert who is the imam of a local mosque and whose ideas don't always jibe with Zarina's, either, and who is less financially secure (and thus less of a man) in Afzal's ever-judging eyes.

It's their attempts to balance the doctrinal and cultural aspects of Islam with a marching-forward contemporary society that's led them to their divergent interpretations. But the religion, Akhtar argues, doesn't just belong to one—something that's as much the solution as the problem. Notably more than with his play Disgraced, a Pulitzer Prize winner that premiered in the same theater in 2012 and is slated to open on Broadway in the fall, Akhtar skillfully charts the impact that has on those who are struggling to live, or at least respect, Islam's precepts today. And he weaves in the generational conflict with a light touch that leads to some thundering moments when the disagreements between the rigorous and the "reform" can no longer be completely ignored.

It makes for an engaging evening, but both the script and director Kimberly Senior's staging lack a suppleness and ease that could unleash even more emotional power. Mahwish and Eli frequently seem shoehorned into the narrative, underdeveloped as though their symbolic presences are more important than their actual actions, whereas Haroun, who as described represents a fascinating contrast to the more refined and assimilated Mahwish, doesn't appear at all. The climactic kitchen fight between the four is too arid and sluggishly paced to lacerate as deeply as it ought to. And the latticework screens that define the three main playing areas (from set designer Jack Magaw) and sound designer Jill BC Du Boff's music feel clich├ęd in a way the rest of the writing doesn't.

The choicest individuality onstage comes from Malouf, who's especially good in her portrayal at juggling both the American freedoms Zarina takes for granted with the ties to Pakistan she can't escape. She plays as a woman dislodged from time, a modern creature too often drifting through the foggy past everyone else around her loves; it's a compelling, sensitive portrait that never settles for the obvious colors you may expect. White outlines strict hardliner Afzal with twinges of aching sympathy that ground him as a man who can't avoid the crises of conscience to which he's sure he's immune. Ashe, endearing but overplaying youthful optimism, and Keller, who projects a confusion that doesn't seem natural to Eli, are less successful, but they're more than good enough.

Each of the characters they play conjures a specific perspective on faith—as something to hold to, as something to learn from but not idolize, and so on—that together energize this otherwise low-key and occasionally off-kilter discussion of what place any ancient belief system has in the world today. The Who & The What doesn't say much that Fiddler on the Roof didn't say 50 years ago, for example, but it serves as a potent reminder that with affairs of the soul, some messages—whether pleasant or ugly—simply can't be heard often enough.

The Who & The What
Through July 13
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission
Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge