‘The Who and the What’ at ArtsWest

Alaji (Mahwish) and Monika Jolly (Zarina). Photo by Michael Brunk.

Generational tectonic plates grind and grate against one another in Ayad Akhtar’s play The Who and the What, currently threading issues of faith, identity and gender politics into a very funny family story on stage at ArtsWest, co-produced with Pratidhwani.

In this wealthy Pakistani American home in Atlanta, two adult daughters balance modern lives—the younger Mahwish (Alaji) is a nursing student, Zarina (Monika Jolly) is a brilliant academic—with the conservative Islamic values of their youth. Meanwhile their traditional, patriarchal father dips a toe into modernity, emojis and online dating.

But Afsal (Abhijeet Rane) isn’t online dating for himself; he’s created a profile for Zarina on an Islamic dating site so he can vet potential suitors. Coffee with Eli (Andre Nelson) is going very well; Eli is an Islamic convert and Afsal likes him fine. It turns out that Zarina does too, to the delight of Mahwish, who is itching to marry her longtime family-approved boyfriend even though she pines for her GRE tutor.

The plot smacks of Taming of the Shrew—serious older sister has to get married before ditzy younger sister can wed her intended—which must be by design. That framework builds in some drama but it also compresses these characters, created as they were to fill prescribed plot functions, a problem most evident in the underwritten Mahwish. By writing Mahwish as a hilariously scatterbrained woman, Akhtar leans into a trope that has needed to die since Shakespeare was a chart-topper: She’s a nursing student, not a dummy, and writing her as so dull she thinks the philosopher Pascal was called Pasta is a throwaway joke at best. There are other ways to convey that she’s not as interrogative of her beliefs as Zarina is. (That said, cutting back the up-speak and hand-acting that undercut the rhythm of some jokes would also help.)

Zarina has no interest in dating because she’s drowning in work on a novel about women and Islam, the prophet Muhammad and the (in her mind) misunderstood story of the veil that led to the tradition of devout Muslim women hiding their faces. Sensual and humanizing, meant to portray the prophet as a fallible man that no modern person can truly know, the novel is quicksand under the foundation of her family.

What I couldn’t suss out, while watching director Samip Raval’s production, was who to care about, and why. Akhtar writes exceedingly clever, traditionally structured plays. This one happens to catapult forward in time between the two short acts, though an intermission still felt unnecessary and sluggish. In addition, many of the work’s fairly long scenes seemed to need a bit more rehearsal for actors to find moments of honesty and vulnerability. We need to love this family before we see it fall apart—otherwise, why are we here?

Zarina’s book may be this story’s dynamite, but religion is just one part of Akhtar’s theatrical exploration, probing the boundaries of exchange between parents and children—moral, financial, physical, ethical, spiritual. What must we take and what can we leave? To what are we bound, and how are we free? When it comes to culture, what is in our bones and what is in our brains?

Mahwish bends over backward to follow the letter of Islamic law, if not the spirit (the sisterly jabs about anal sex are legit funny) and stays with an oppressive partner because her father likes him. Zarina may buck against the conservative ideals of her parents’ rural Pakistani upbringing, but she’s perfectly comfortable taking money from her dad, which rubs Eli the wrong way. Eli, for all his progressive do-gooder Islamism, flips out when he learns out the Zarina was in love with someone before him, much like every woke dude who secretly thinks women should arrive at relationships tabula rasa. Afsal, for his part, truly wants his daughters to be happy, though he’s slow to understand that their happiness may rely, in part, on his unhappiness as they shed their inherited moral exoskeletons.

All this is to say, Akhtar writes complex, nuanced plays—and won a Pulitzer Prize for his Disgraced—so to see this piece tied up in a tidy and, in this production, inevitable bow felt disappointing. Things don’t always work out, even between people who love each other very much. That’s what makes life such a complicated navigation—anyone who just sails on through isn’t paying attention. 

The Who and the What runs through Oct. 1 at ArtsWest.