Monday, December 22, 2014

New York Review: THE WHO & THE WHAT

New York Review: THE WHO & THE WHAT

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By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

"In Pakistan? She would be killed for this. Killed."

This explosive line is one of many that challenges an audience's assumptions and prejudices in Ayad Akhtar's The Who & the What.

The "this" in that line is a novel about the Prophet Mohammed's sex life, written as an attempt to humanize him and reveal the edicts of the Quran--like the requirement of the hijab (the veil a Muslim woman wears on her face)--as merely metaphors.

The "She" is a highly-educated, Americanized Muslim woman, Zarina (Nadine Malouf) who is unmarried and living at home with her father Afzal (the riveting Bernard White), an authoritative, deeply religious widower who has built a successful taxi cab business and is devoted to his two daughters. The younger daughter, Mahwish (Tala Ashe) has been engaged to a "scumbag" since she was sixteen.  By Act Two, Zarina is married to Eli (Greg Keller), a convert to Islam, a white Imam in an all black neighborhood, while Mahwish is now married to the scumbag but pining for someone else.

Ayad Akhtar's The Who & the What is a compelling drama about immigrant families, about theology, and about how dangerous and powerful the written word can be; Kimberly Senior's direction smoothly unspools the complexities of these tangled issues.

The tension of being a woman growing up "inside" Islam, of feeling "erased" while growing up in America and going to Harvard, is underscored by Ifzal's advising Eli that he needs to assert his manhood over his wife and "break her." Gender politics is snarled up with racial politics: as Eli points out, the Pakistani Muslim community is happy to have a white convert from Christianity, but not so enthusiastic about the African-American converts. 

It's a play about love and desire, a family drama in the guise of a theological debate. Or maybe it's a theological debate in disguise as a family drama. Either way, Akhtar's The Who & the What gets under your skin, just as his Pulitzer Prize winning Disgraced did last year. He uses various clever devices—blind dates, family arguments—to provide exposition in this complicated, disturbing intersection of big issues, making this a very American play.

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Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center. Through July 13. Information: www.lct3.org

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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