Review: The Who and the What

2014-06-18 18.58.58Before I even start on the play, may I just say a few words on the theater? I think all of my friends should go see a show at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow. Lovely rooftop terrace, intimate theater, affordable bar, $20 tickets. Honestly folks: I’m not sure there’s a better deal.

And the play ain’t bad either. The Who and the What is a new production from Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the 2013 Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced. Like Disgraced, this show deals with culture clashes, but this time from an explicitly religious angle. Zarina (Nadine Malouf), an ambivalent Muslim woman from a devout family, writes a novel about the prophet Muhammad’s very human urges and spiritual confusion, causing a firestorm within her family. The Who and the What is really about the role of women in the Quran and Muslim society, and is the kind of play that reminds me how fortunate I am by comparison.

It’s also a softer play than Disgraced, which has a shocking violent element to it. I could more easily predict the plot twists, and despite some cutting insults and tense moments, nothing about The Who and the What feels like it cuts to the soul. I also think I’d have liked it better if it made me a little more uncomfortable in my own position, and less righteously indignant about another culture. But I don’t want to lose the thread here: this play is thought-provoking; it’s involving; it features lively characters and great use of humor. All this with a 2 hour running time (and that includes an intermission).

One more thing: Zarina’s book is supposedly an incisive and daring portrayal of Muhammad, but the excerpts, to my ears, sounded more like The Red Tent, which I recall as an occasionally steamy summer read featuring biblical characters. I’d have been more convinced about Zarina’s novel had it sounded more like The Testament of Mary, a novel and play from Colm Tóibín that really does feel subversive. Maybe I’d have been more interested in a story told from the woman’s perspective (Zarina’s novel is told from Muhammad’s point of view).  But then perhaps I’m only saying that because I’m familiar with the Bible, but not the Quran.

(Edited to add, 6/21/14)

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Ticket price: $20 on
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No

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