There’s an excitingly fine line between hilarity and heartbreak in Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & the What, the final production of Round House Theatre’s 2015/2016 season. It’s a fine line, but much of what is most affecting in this probing work rests on it, and we skip, sometimes suddenly, from one side to the other. Zarina (Anu Yadav) and her younger sister Mahwish (Olivia Khoshatefeh), live at home with their father, Afzal (Tony Mirrcandani). There is a genuine warmth – palpable love – captured by Yadav, Khoshatefeh, and Mirrcandani, under Eleanor Holdridge’s capable direction, but even from the start, the tension that drives the play and ultimately pulls a loving family apart is apparent. The technological gap between Afzal and his adult daughters is a simple symbol of both the generational and the cultural gap between father, raised in Pakistan, and his daughters, raised in America.
This is a production that will stay with you long beyond the final blackout…
There is subtler conflict, too. Afzal, a self-proclaimed ‘conservative’ – a word he pronounces so deliberately we assume he’s adopted someone else’s description of him as his own – carefully monitors and mediates his daughters’ behaviour to be in line with his own views of appropriate Islamic practice. At the same time, Afzal embodies an American Dream narrative. Once a taxi driver, he now gets free coffee, recognised from the television adverts for his taxi company. He is quick to point out that he owns 30% of the taxis in Atlanta. He is a thoroughly modern American Man, though frequently rhapsodic about his arranged marriage and life in Pakistan. He is less ‘out of touch’ with the here and now than his views about women seem to demand him to be.
Meanwhile, Mahwish and Zarina, who remain confidants throughout, disagree with each other too. Concerned that the book Zarina is struggling to write at the start of the play, on “gender politics” might be part of the “big deal” everyone makes about “women in Islam,” Mahwish assures her sister, we’re doing “fine.” Mahwish is at peace with some of the irreconcilable aspects of her existence, the gap between what her father knows of her and how she actually lives her life. Karina is not – “we can’t keep not saying things” – but in seeking to resolve them in her book about the Prophet (“The Who & The What”), she winds up destroying a great deal, too. In short, what happens when ‘The How and the Why’ come into conflict with ‘The Who and The What?’ Even with all the love in the world, the beliefs that define individuals divide them just as sharply.
Brandon McCoy, who plays Eli, a recent convert to Islam, hand-picked from “muslimlove.com,” then personally vetted by Afzal for his daughter Zarina, gives a sympathetic and vulnerable portrayal, while Mirrcandani’s performance is at its best in the highly emotional moments of conflict Afzal confronts. Yadav’s Zarina is headstrong and determined, while Khoshatefeh’s Mahwish effortless balances her character’s many roles in the family and on her own.
The scenic design, including a doubly revolving stage, by Luciana Stecconi is elegant, and seamlessly weaves through the action, as the characters weave through it. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound convincingly blends the cultural tensions of the play, adding drive and energy, without ever drawing us away from the action.
The production has plenty of heart and if some of the gags are a little jarring, they sometimes add to the more serious minded aspects of the play, never letting us be completely at our ease, thwarting simple, unequivocal reactions.
The frictions, fictions, and fractions of faith collide throughout The Who & The What. How can we respond to Afzal’s sexism: women “don’t know what they want?” We are told by his daughter “he means well.” How do we reconcile his personal prayer for his yet-to-be born grandchild and tearful declarations to his now estranged daughter, “you are what I care about” just as he banishes them from his life? Is Zarina’s position on equality reconcilable with her selfish and destructive actions in pursuit of “deeper truth?”
If you’re looking for easy answers, they are admirably scarce in The Who & The What. There is no easy way out and we are left to reflect on our own sense of the moral and human dimensions as the characters’ conflicts remain ultimately unresolved, their actions frequently ambivalent. This is a production that will stay with you long beyond the final blackout, and offers a compelling insight into “what we think we know” and how “real” or not, that might be. It is fascinating and engaging theatre.
Advisory: Adult content, and mild language.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with one intermission
The Who & The What runs until June 19, 2016 at the Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD 20814. For tickets, call 240.644.1100 or purchase them online here.