“For you to be happy is all I’ve ever wanted…”
Pretty words. Funny how often the subtext is “as long as you’re happy how I want you to be happy.”
Control issues abound in The Who & The What, Ayad Akhtar’s 2014 follow-up to Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that catapulted him into the elite ranks of American dramatists. DC has something of an embarrassment of Akhtar riches this season, with a well-received production of Disgraced having just closed at Arena Stage. This critic missed that production, but isn’t ashamed to brag he caught the pre-Broadway production at the Lincoln Center.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve been into Ayad Akhtar since before it was cool, and I’ve been waiting anxiously for my next fix. The big question, of course, being, “is it as good as Disgraced?” Well, no, it’s not. But it is more fun. And funnier. And has quite a bit more heart. Disgraced, for all its brilliance, is a cold piece of work, mechanical in its stripping down of its character’s dignity. The Akhtar of The Who & The What is a gentler sort, more interested in the possibility of his flawed characters finding a little bit of grace and Eleanor Holdridge’s fine production at Round House is one of my favorites of the year.
Pious and paternalistic father Afzal, played with real pathos and great comic timing by Tony Mirrcandani, loves his two daughters Zarina (Anu Yadav) and Mahwish (Olivia Khoshatefeh) ever so much. Loves them with a fervor almost religious in nature. He has worked for decades building an Atlanta taxi empire in his efforts to give them comfortable lives as first-generation Americans, and happily maintains the beautiful home in which both still live, well into unmarried adulthood. But it’s a love rooted in a deep need for control, and it is that dichotomy, shared at a lesser extent by the other characters, that drives much of the story.
Older daughter Zarina, a Harvard MFA, is living at home working on a novel, the content and themes of which she is reluctant to reveal to her pious father and sister. Afzal senses her loneliness and frustration, and the first act is largely concerned with his sitcom-like attempts to land Zarina a good, upstanding, Muslim husband. Eventually Zarina has a sort of anti-meet cute with passionate convert Eli (Brandon McCoy), and the two share a testy, tentative chemistry. Afzal’s paternalistic tendencies are largely played for laughs early on, a canny move by Akhtar as he maneuvers his characters into conflict over the Big Questions and Dark Secrets that must inevitably come out for every character once the play starts heading towards its climax. Eventually the misogynistic subtext behind Afzal’s actions and advice becomes straight up text.
The Who & The What
closes June 19, 2016
Details and tickets
No one could ever confuse Akhtar with an innovative stylist. He works largely in well-known and well trod tropes of American realism. His protagonists are generally upper-middle class, if not outright wealthy, often academics, writers, theologians. They spend most of their time conversing about big philosophical topics in well-appointed homes, when they aren’t ripping each other to emotional shreds. What makes these early plays by Akhtar so important and vital is the uniquely Islamic perspective he brings to these traditional genres. His characters are well-defined and three-dimensional. His dialogue is nearly peerless in American writing.
The cast is up to the material, especially Yadav and Mirrcandani, playing the father and elder daughter, whose generational and philosophical conflict drives the heart of the drama. It all takes place on Luciana Stecconi’s impressive double-revolve set, the smooth swirling of which Holdridge has clearly fallen in love with and luxuriates in.
But then, there’s a lot to love and admire about what Holdridge and her team have accomplished with Akhtar’s script. There are so many plays about so-called “brilliant” artists and writers in which the author has to cheat around actually showing us the art, but the excerpt we hear from Zarina’s novel about the Prophet Mohammed is rapturous and enchanting. It made me wish the book existed in real life, which is something no similar work has ever made me feel.
The Who & The What by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge . Featuring Anu Yadav, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Brandon McCory and Tony Mirrcandani . Set Design: Luciana Stecconi . Sound Design: Matthew M. Nielson . Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler . Costume Design: Kendra Rai. Dramaturg: Otis Ramsey-Zoe. Produced by Round House Theatre. Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.