La Jolla, CA---Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and the What” now making its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre through March 9th is thoughtful, oft times intense, oft times funny, resourceful and informative. In short it is a good start for a conversation that is so relevant in todays dialogue about integration, family values and cultural differences but it comes up short of those goals and ultimately falls into the category of TBC or weekly sit-com.
When Tevye, of the now celebrated musical “Fiddler on the Roof” by Jerry Block, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye and his Daughters” learned that one of his daughters, Chava married a young Russian he literally pronounced her dead to him. It was all about the Papa and Tradition. That took place in Tsarist Russia 1905.
Move those same orthodox Jews to America where they don’t live in shtetls, but are exposed to every ethnicity, go out in the workplace, attend an out of state college and open their eyes to other cultures offer a wee bit of latitude in their thinking yet still maintain strict adherence to their customs, ethnic traditions and religion and cross fingers that the children won’t stray too far from home.
There are families of all stripes fighting to keep the traditions, the religion of their native country alive here in America. Would it, could it happen that the younger generation just doesn’t place that much importance on some of the values while adhering to others? Is it happening here today? Absolutely.
One might conclude, and rightfully so, that in some circles, and in every ethnicity and family that brought those strict religious beliefs and practices along with and expected the same results that yes, some will break that code and none will be too happy.
In playwright Akhtar’s “The Who and The What” the central characters in his latest play are a Pakistani Muslim family living in Atlanta, Ga. At the head of the household is the Papa, Afzal (Bernard White). His wife passed some time ago and he lives with his two grown daughters Zarina (Monika Jolly) and Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). They more or less run the domestic part of the household, cooking, cleaning.
He is a successful businessman owning a goodly share of all the Yellow Cabs in Atlanta. He takes pride in the fact that his entrepreneurial know how moved him from hard working cab driver to big shot. He comes home with envelopes of cash to spread the wealth to the highest bidder.
The problem with Afzal is that he has too much time on his hands now that he sits in an office and oversees his cute little commercials. He plays cupid with his oldest daughter’s love life first by forbidding her from marrying the love of her life, an Irish Catholic classmate (she met him at Harvard) with whom she was smitten, and is now meeting with Eli (Kai Lennox) a white man who converted to Islam. Eli, a rather calm, cool guy heads up a soup kitchen in his local mosque.
Dad is hoping to arrange a meeting between the two, but God forbid, not arrange for a husband. Did I mention he met Eli on line by pretending to be Zarina? Afzal insists that as the older sister, Zarina must marry before Mahwish. Mahwish pretty much goes along with that and pushes her sister to get on with her life and find a husband. That’s how things are done. Her life is well… not looking so wonderful as she tells it. (TMI)
After her breakup with Ryan, Zarina cooped herself up in her room and began writing her great Muslim novel which no one, not even her sister has seen. She does reveal that it is complicated and controversial but she feels it necessary to put it to pen and paper. It’s about the Prophet Mohammed, his human side-his softer side and it’s about he role of women in Islam. It will be a bombshell when published.
Zarina is a feminist through and through. Throughout she stands up for women’s issues and is very vocal about subjects like women being independent and forging their own way. She has strong and good mind of her own so when she stands up to her father and later her husband, we want to high five, ‘You go girl’!
But something goes awry. When Afzal secretly gets hold of her book and reads it, all hell breaks loose and the family is in disarray. At this point in time Zarina and Eli are now married and their relationship takes a bit of hit because Daddy is a buttinsky and meddles in their lives.
Suddenly there is a shift in the energy of the play.
The playwright changes course, offers one simple solution to soothe everyone’s ruffled feathers and nullifies everything that went before. No one said that assimilation, family dynamics/ values and culture shock are easy topics to write about, but unlike Robert Frost in the “Road Not Taken”, the playwright took the one most traveled and that made all the difference.
Akhtar’s play has its many ups and downs, conflicts and solutions (of sorts). It is easy to watch and easy to identify with all or most of the characters. Overall they are likable enough, in some cases even sympathetic. Monika Jolly is strong willed and very persuasive in just about everything she professes. In short, she convinces. Unfortunately the playwright doesn’t have enough confidence in her character to let her follow her dreams.
Bernard White’s Afzal fits the stereotypical in control father who thinks he knows what's best for his daughters yet doesn't really know what his daughters are up to. But then again, when he does it doesn’t take him long to reign them in. He is perfect as Afzal.
Kai Lennox’s Eli comes across as he we perceive him, sincere and likeable, in love with his wife and eager to please. (The Who of him). Meera Rohit Kumbhani’s Mahwish is a spitfire as the counterbalance sister, but her character is like an also ran.
Director Kimberly Senior moves the play along without a hitch and the production is smooth and engaging. Jack Magaw’s sliding and compact set on the wide Potiker stage gives easy access to every set change. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting design and Jill BC DuBoff sound are perfect.
I’ll leave it to you to figure out The Who’s and The What’s of who is who and what is what. Once Zarina gives us some guidelines as why the distinction of The Who and The What is important in the overall impact of her family dynamic, as she does in the second act, it makes some sense, but still doesn’t justify the ending.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 9th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA, 92037
Ticket Prices: Start @$15.00
Venue: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theater