The Critic’s Code says we can’t talk about endings. But the final scene of Ayad Akhtar’s otherwise involving comedy-drama, The Who & The What, doesn’t feel right at all. Up to that point the play probes difficult issues. Then, with theatrical prestidigitation, just sweeps them under the carpet with a facile and frustrating resolution.
Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rightly so. Amir Kapoor, American-born Muslim and rising corporate lawyer, gets bombed with bigotry and suddenly hits back — a senseless act that, in a horrific way, makes a kind of sense.
The Who & The What feels like a sequel — or photographic negative — to Disgraced. Where the seemingly assimilated Amir lashes out in the end, Zarina begins on the attack. She’s 33, hyper-smart, and writing a book about “gender politics: women and Islam.” Just as Amir’s conservative mother will let him marry a Jewish woman “over my dead body,” Zarina’s father, Afzal, will let her marry Ryan, an Irish Catholic, over his. In each case love for the actual person, the “who,” gives way to culturally determined attributes, i.e., the “what.”
Afzal’s “whats”: he owns 30 percent of all the Yellow Cabs in Atlanta. His TV ads make him a local celebrity. Except for his cherished daughters, Zarina and younger Mahwish, he’s led a “cosmically useless life.” He won’t let Mahwish marry until Zarina can forget Ryan and find a mate. To prod the process, Afzal put Zarina’s name on Muslimlove.com.
Like Amir, Zarina has conflicting “whats.” A Muslim and a feminist, she looks for the “who” in each. She’s also fearless. Her book, depicting a human, vulnerable Mohammed, could prove as blasphemous — and life-threatening — as Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. As could her crusade to remove the veils that “erase” Muslim women.
Eli also straddles worlds. A white man who converted to Islam, he’s the imam (leader) of a mosque/soup kitchen in North Atlanta. Most books and movies describe love’s beginnings or endings. Few provide models for mature love. After Zarina and Eli threaten to call the whole thing off, Act Two shows how adult love can function based on “who” a person is — even how society can as well.
Given the polish of the La Jolla Playhouse production, you’d never know the play’s a world premiere. And since Kimberly Senior also directed the original Disgraced, it’s clear she honors the playwright’s wishes. Islands of furniture roll out from the blue, rear stage wall; the lighting, and little lamps hanging like a carnival of stars from the high ceiling, enhance moods; Elisa Benzoni’s costumes pinpoint character.
Monika Jolly makes Zarina as forthright as Antigone but could blend in less adamant moments. Kai Lennox’s Eli verges on sainthood. The script wants Meera Rohit Kumbhani’s young Mahwish to be an antsy comic figure, at the expense of her pain. The script also double dips Afzal. To make his orthodoxy sympathetic, the excellent Bernard White must play him with a lightness that mutes his beliefs. White gets the laughs, but often at Afzal’s expense.
The playwright pits beliefs and a family against each other. He also shifts his frames for different scenes: melodrama here, psychological thriller there, sitcom in between. These familiar frames, which the director handles effectively, make the conflicts accessible, even entertaining, to non-Muslims. But in the end, sitcom reigns. It erases burning issues with a catch-all conclusion even soap operas might find too simplistic.
The title comes from the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstruction: “Love is by definition an unmerited gift.” If someone says they love you for certain characteristics (you are decent, you do the dishes, you don’t snore), “I’m disappointed: such love seems self-interested business” — aka, the What.
“Fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.”
The proof of real love, he says, is “being loved without meriting it” — aka, simply who you are. “How much finer to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egoist, a bastard.”
I once had the honor of escorting M. Derrida across the UCSD campus to a lecture hall at Revelle College. Along the way, he said he liked how the campus was laid out — paths have no straight lines — because “You cannot reach your destination directly.”
Directed by Kimberly Senior; cast: Monika Jolly, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, Kai Lennox, Bernard White; scenic design, Jack Magaw; costumes, Elisa Benzoni; lighting, Jaymi Lee Smith; sound, Jill B.C. Du Boff