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