Theater Review: “The Who & the What” — And the Why?

Ayad Akhtar’s script softens up the issue of patriarchal authoritarianism by plugging it into a family comedy structure.

The Who & the What by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA through May 7.

Turna Mete and Rom Barkhordar in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of "The Who & the What." Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Turna Mete and Rom Barkhordar in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “The Who & the What.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

By Bill Marx

One routine critique of the plays of George Bernard Shaw, and it has more than a little justice to it, is that he delivered his challenging social messages at the center of candied pills, his bountiful wit helping to make the political medicine go down easier. Contemporary American theater takes the opposite tack. A thin astringent shell, introduced to convince theatergoers that they are seeing something risky or disruptive, serves as covering for a huge lump of sugar. The idea is to imitate the structure of many commercials: raise a sense of anxiety and then quell it with suggestions that, with the right product, sufficient money, love, or good luck, all will be pretty peachy, at least for those with sufficient incomes.

The latest example of the bourgeois bait and switch technique is The Who & the What by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar. I missed his much discussed play Disgraced, considered by many critics to be provocative, when it was recently produced at the Huntington Theater Company. I can testify that there is not the slightest attempt to rile up much dissention in this script. Akhtar takes on a hot button topic: Muslim misogyny, the systematic subjugation of the female sex, with the ‘blessings’ of religion, in vast regions of the world, where it is enshrined as patriarchal state policy. And the code of silence that exists in the West (particularly in Europe) regarding discussion of how the values of Muslim immigrants challenge our Enlightenment belief in human rights. How far should cultural relativity go? Is there not a steep price to be paid if no limits are placed on tolerating the intolerable? Dramatizing these and other issues would no doubt discomfort liberal audiences – the stuff of high (and relevant) drama given what is going on today amid the conflicts over immigration.

Rather than take on those difficult issues, Akhtar softens up patriarchal authoritarianism by plugging it into a family comedy structure — with more than a little Fiddler on the Roof sprinkled in for sweet measure. It is 2014, Atlanta, Georgia, and the plot focuses on a Muslim-American family who immigrated from Pakistan and, through hard work, have become an upper class example of the American dream. Patriarch Afzal started up a successful cab company; he is a conservative believer, but toward his beloved daughters he tries to be generous and understanding. Mahwish is studying to be a nurse, yet clings to the traditional ways; she is engaged to a young Muslim who makes demeaning use of male prerogatives. (In order to remain a virgin — thus pleasing her guy and his family — Mahwish has accepted years of anal sex). The brilliant Zarina is the family’s progressive: she went to Harvard and is struggling to complete a novel about The Prophet. The iconoclastic tome looks at Muhammad from the inside, as a flawed human being, a view that inevitably undercuts the religion’s barbaric attitudes about women. The implication is that brainy females, by asserting themselves, will help change age old patterns of servitude. But Akhtar has (too) neatly set up his situation to optimize the possibilities for transformation.

The conflict presented by the (for some) shocking novel, and Zarina’s romance with Eli, a white Muslim convert from Detroit, serves as the script’s stab at friction. Distancing itself from politics, The Who & the What is hermetically sealed in the family. No non-believer characters are there to provide perspective. The mother has died, so that valuable female point of view is off the table, and Mahwish’s love interest is never seen or heard — a disagreeable element sidelined.  What’s  left is a quartet of likable characters — Afzal is a bully, but he’s a buoyant charmer, a superannuated mensch. So the issue becomes whether this family  — daughters, son-in-law, and father — will be able to get along. I will go no further.

M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction works well enough with the show’s kitchen sink comedy scenes, but it pulls up pretty short when the script demands the expression of deeper emotions. I am dating myself, but Rom Barkhordar as Afzal gives what I call a “Jolly Green Giant” performance — it is all “Ho! Ho! Ho!” The actor wants the audience to love him and he will not be denied. The catch is that his boomy performance is not nuanced enough to convince us that Afzal is genuinely mourning his dead wife. Joseph Marrella is effective as your proverbial nice guy, while Turna Mete is agreeable enough as Mahwish. Only Aila Peck brings some intriguing spin to her turn as Zarina, suggesting that treating women as chattel does intractable damage to the oppressed as well as the oppressor. It’s a refreshing touch of reality: perhaps Zarina isn’t going to bounce back with the requisite American get-up-and go.

So what would be genuinely ‘provocative’ drama? It would be refreshing to move beyond kitchen sink realism. Why not step into the power precincts of the board room? Also, in this bluest of blue states, why just settle for reinforcing good intentions? Let’s shake audiences up, make them question what they accept without demur. For example, those who express valid (or at least reasonable) worries about immigration and national identity are often branded as being solely motivated by racism or anti-Islamic hysteria. A dramatist who centered his or her conflict around a character who insisted that Muslims adhere to the same set of core, liberal precepts as everyone else would have the makings of an exciting evening of political theater. Let both extremes have it out. You might not agree with what you hear — but you might be moved, angered, even provoked to think. And what could be more disruptive than that?

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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