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I can’t describe the premise of “The Who & The What” better than the playwright does. Pulitzer Prize winner (for “Disgraced”) Ayad Akhtar says he was inspired by an ad he saw on a passing bus for the Cole Porter musical “Kiss Me Kate,” itself a riff on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” “Bam!,” Akhtar recollects thinking. He would pen “an American adaptation of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ set in a Pakistani-American family.”
At the Calderwood Pavilion, where the 2014 work is in its Boston premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company (through May 7), “The Who & The What” is also set in a towering box evocative of the elaborate mosaic designs of Islamic architecture, glimmering red and gold. Also glimmering, on the stage floor as we enter the theater, is a silver Apple laptop. Into this majestic square slide the realistic settings of the play: an Atlanta kitchen, a coffee shop, a living room, a park bench. Inventive set designer Cristina Todesco, given an upscale Huntington budget, has outdone herself.
The play, however, is less stylized than the set — and far less shocking or political than “Disgraced,” which the Huntington produced in 2016. Which is to say that the audience will be less shocked than it was by the devolution in “Disgraced,” from sophisticated Manhattan dinner party to brute violence. The patriarch of “The Who & The What,” who wants to marry his older daughter within the faith before allowing his younger to wed her longtime Muslim love, is plenty shocked when he gets hold of the book the elder sibling has been writing.
Entitled “The Who & The What,” Zarina’s novel is a fictional exploration of “gender politics” rooted in an erotic incident involving the Prophet Muhammad. In the author’s view, the book is an attempt to humanize Islam’s central figure. But to Afzal, her booming traditionalist dad, it’s blasphemy pure and simple.
The Huntington is marketing “The Who & The What” as a “provocative and moving drama.” But the playwright characterizes it as “a comedy” whose events “may appear to take it into darker, more dramatic territory.” He emphasizes the need for ace timing and a light touch, which for the most part M. Bevin O’Gara’s snappy production — though it tilts in the first act toward sitcom — exhibits.
But come the second act, there is no getting around the familial anguish caused by the play’s clash of patriarchal Islamic tradition and contemporary, educated American lives. The play sneaks up on this via the character of Afzal, a charmingly manipulative, even fawning father who nonetheless advises his elder daughter’s partner, as the two men sit around the kitchen table talking: “She won’t be happy until you break her, son. She needs you to take it on, man.”
Zarina, of course, is not looking to be broken. An agnostic, feminist Harvard grad more perplexed by than devoted to Islam, she is struggling to create a context in which, by imagining the prophet as “a man at war with his own desire,” she can make sense of, even blow smoke at, some of the faith’s restrictions regarding women. The Quran, she proffers, is perhaps less the word of Allah than the result of all that happened to His spokesperson.
Having (not entirely believably) given up a man she loved in order to meet her father’s wish that she not marry outside the faith, Zarina has now chosen as a partner Eli, a young white Christian convert to Islam who helms both a mosque and a soup kitchen, precisely because he respects and is even a bit in awe of her. For his part, Eli does eventually “man” up — just not in the boorish, domineering way Afzal has in mind.
As for nursing student Mahwish, the younger daughter, she is hardly Shakespeare’s Bianca, playing several suitors against one another. Eagerly awaiting a marriage “arranged” (since childhood) as much by herself as her father, the irrepressible beauty has nonetheless done things she is ashamed of to keep her lover and is starting to simmer at the subjugation while flirting with extracurricular sexual attraction — and a handsome GRE tutor called Manuel.
Certainly the Huntington production of “The Who & The What” captures the clash between ancient religious tradition and modern American mores at the core of the theater piece. The music, which accompanies all that gliding in and out of furniture, is like an aural chest bump between contemporary rock and authentic Middle Eastern sound, rife with oud and chant (the arresting original compositions are by Saraswathi Jones). Similarly, the characters seem caught between cultures as old as time and as new as distressed jeans and online dating. Even Afzal, the wealthy owner of a cab company manned by Muslim drivers, is both an immigrant success story and a clinger to the old ways.
The affable if controlling Afzal is the play’s trickiest character, and Rom Barkhordar mines him for all his bulldozing charm and patriarchal tyranny. Aila Peck’s Zarina is quick-witted, sometimes even scathing, yet convincingly subdued by heartbreak, writer’s block and her father’s larger-than-life thumb. Moreover, there is a credible sibling vibe between her and Turna Mete’s stubbornly devout, sexually confused and quite adorable Mahwish, whether the two are dancing through salad prep or ferreting out each other’s secrets. Joseph Marrella is a smart if shlubbier than necessary Eli, who doesn’t let earnestness get in the way of his comic timing.
Although I found the play’s conclusion sentimental and glib, “The Who & The What,” for most of its two acts, is indeed provocative as well as warm and sharply written. Zarina, slouching toward the reason for her controversial novel about Muhammad, even clarifies the play’s — and her book’s — odd title: “And all the stories we hear, that have gotten told for hundreds of years, don’t point to a real person,” she says of the prophet. “It’s all like this monument to what we’ve made of him. But who was he really? We don’t know.”
Akhtar, raised in a secular home, may not even care. What he demonstrates here, with both wit and tenderness, is that, despite all the familial affection in the world, when rigid belief comes up against rational thought, reconciliation can prove as elusive as surety.
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