Akhtar play at The Rep is timely and important, but could use some fine tuning

Nikita Tewani and Soraya Broukhim in The Who & the What at The Rep

It was almost as if I was watching Serena and Venus Williams and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on a tennis court mixing it up and blisteringly batting a ball back and forth over the line.

Winners hit and then points saved. Big serves. Him against him and her against her and then him against her and her against him.

It’s “The Who and the What,” the play by Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar that opened Friday night at The Rep’s Stiemke Studio theater.

Akhtar writes movingly about the Muslim experience and here he examines the clash between a fervent ancient belief and the conflicting temptations of modern life. In alongside the religious conflict is the family dynamic that can, and does, add to the

The story is of a Muslim family, Afzal (Brian Abraham), a successful Atlanta businessman and widower and his two daughters, Zarina (Soraya Broukhim) and Marwish (Nikita Tewani).  Added to this mix is a white guy, a convert to Islam, Eli (Ben Kahre).

Afzal is a devout believer who has mixed his religion with his drive to owning 30% of the taxicab business in Atlanta. He is as devoted to his daughters as to his faith.

Those dual devotions have created a meddler in the lives of the two daughters, born born of love but exasperating and discouraging.  It is with Zarina that he is the most meddling of fathers.

He creates a Zarinia profile for the website “muslimlove.com” and has pretended to be her in search of a match. He exchanges messages with a number of young men who though they were talking to a young Muslim woman. Her shock at the invasion of her privacy is  full of amazement.

He is responsible for forcing the breakup of Zarina and a Christian boyfriend when both were on the precipice of marriage. That breakup still haunts her.

Both Afzal and Marwish are compulsive about finding a way for Zarina to move on from the breakup and start dating. She doesn’t have time for a social life since she is wrapped up in a book about “gender politics and Muslim women.  She has developed writer’s block and the book, like her life, seems to be going nowhere.

Her father has discovered Eli and has set up a meeting in a coffee shop, which starts awkwardly but, as the production moves forward, proves to be a success with a marriage for the couple.

Akhtar’s play seems to be almost two plays in the one.

First and foremost is the one about Islam and the struggle to lead a faithful life in a changed time, as a distinct minority and the amid demands of corporate ambition.

The second is about the often charred relationships that fuel the ever-changing torment between parents and children, and especially between a father and his daughters.

The talented May Adrales, newly-appointed co-Associate Artistic Director at The Rep, brings her high-level sensitivity to the director’s chair in this production. She directs all over the country, gravitating to new works. Here she has a clear understanding of the twin stories being told.

Akhtar is a spectacular writer with an equally spectacular reputation. But this play has its uneven moments. In some respects these four characters seem in need of some depth.

Afzal is too controlling, Zarina is too disquieted, Mahwish is too needy and Eli is too white guy. This lack of dimension leads to a temptation to not fully engage with them as real people.

Having said that, the work of this cast to try and find more than is written on the page is admirable.

Mr. Abraham leads the pack with his devoted dignity and his sense of humor. He is committed to the struggle of faith and Abraham has a visage that just makes you want to sympathize with a man so bound by tradition.

Ms. Broukhim has a remarkable ability to shift from joy to sorrow and just about everything in between. She has the teasing and tolerant style with her little sister and determination in the task of trying to finish the book that examines in new light the life of Mohammed.

That little sister, Ms. Tewani,  is the one character who seems to have made accommodations with her faith and her desire. She is engaged to be married to a boy whom she has known all her life. Whether it’s an arranged marriage or not, it seems so. She understands the needs of men so she has anal sex with him so she will be a virgin when they marry.

Mr. Kahre had a difficult task, capturing the historical journey of white suburban guy to a convert to Islam who runs a mosque, works as a plumber and tries to convince a girl and her family that he is worthy of her love.

The subject matter of this play is important to our national discussion but that discussion gets cluttered by the family drama before us. There is too much back and forth between two people – too much singles and not enough  and might have been more interesting with three or four people in the mix.

The Who and the What runs through November 5 and information is available at www.milwaukeerep.com.

Production Credits: Director, May Adrales; Scenic Designer, Andrew Boyce; Costume Designer, Izumi Inaba; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Dialect Coach, Eva Breneman; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington-Calin.


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