Family dramedies have a formula. The first half introduces the family and fellow travelers, their zany personality tics and the explosive revelations that could be their undoing. The second half exposes those revelations and sorts out the mess.
The first section, introducing characters to the audience, is relatively easy. These strange, wonderful people simply have to show up and be rude and lovable. The second section, with the problem-solving, is more challenging.
“The Who and the What” aces the first part.
Set in Atlanta, the play follows a Pakistani Muslim family and their efforts to reconcile conservative Islam with modern mores. Zarina (Monika Jolly) is a 30-ish Harvard-educated writer, living at home and toiling away on a novel about “gender politics.” Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), her younger, slightly ditzy sister, is eager to marry her boyfriend, but their traditionalist father, Afzal (Bernard White), has decreed that Zarina must wed first.
Still smarting from an ugly breakup, orchestrated by her father, Zarina has no interest in dating. But Afzal is a force of nature and won’t be put off. He forges an online profile for Zarina on a Muslim dating site, corresponds with potential suitors and encourages her to meet Eli (Kai Lennox), the imam at a local mosque.
This interaction encapsulates the family dynamic. Afzal demands loyalty from his daughters, but genuinely wants the best for them. Give credit to White for his lighthearted patriarch, a grinning, self-made man who is eager to please. His edicts are more like sales pitches.
Zarina is a brooding, mocking presence, who cannot accept patriarchy in any of its forms, but is reluctant to disappoint her father. She acquiesces to meeting Eli, who turns out to be quite a catch.
Fast-forward a couple of years. Zarina and Eli are married, as is Mahwish. Marital bliss has given Zarina the impetus to finish her novel. The gender politics she so obliquely referenced are deeply intertwined with Koran stories about the prophet Mohammed, accentuating his human, lustful side. After reading it, Eli is torn between his duty as an imam and his loyalty to Zarina. Afzal has choicer emotions.
The cast excels as a team: laid-back Eli, self-involved Mahwish, intense Zarina, but it’s White’s Afzal that propels the play. He doesn’t move across the stage so much as dance, a man completely happy in his own skin, up to a point.
Written by Pulitzer-winner Ayad Akhtar, the dialogue is sharp and occasionally singeing. He navigates the ins and outs of explaining Muslim mythology to an American audience, but it’s a lot of territory and occasionally gets pedantic.
Unfortunately, his attention to detail seems to break down during the inevitable confrontation between Zarina and Afzal. The results, both short- and long-term, are way too pat for the complex issues needing resolution. Simplistic narrative devices are substituted for actual pay-off.
Kimberly Senior’s direction is effective, though she is not always sensitive to the sight lines for the wrap-around audience. Jack Magaw’s modular set is unobtrusive, and allows the characters necessary room to roam.
Ultimately, “The Who & the What” is an interesting, sometimes riveting, take on patriarchy, loyalty and religious purity. Too bad it fast-forwards through the important part.