Chicago Theatre Review
The Novel That Explodes
The Who & the What – Victory Gardens Theatre
It’s difficult to imagine that in today’s world a book could become the catalyst behind so much drama. Among this Pakistani-American family living in Atlanta, a daughter’s original work of fiction entitled The Who & the What does just that. Anton Chekov proclaimed that it’s mandatory that a gun introduced in Act I of a play must be fired in Act II. In this new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”), he takes this edict one step further. Near the beginning of the play, Zarina mentions a novel on which she’s been working. Later, in the second act, not only do we finally see the completed manuscript, this novel explodes sparking an uproar that effects all four of the play’s characters in some way.
Zarina’s novel is a sexual fantasy, a retelling of Muhammad’s life, focusing on the Prophet’s chauvinistic relationships with women. Included within her book is a tale from the Koran wherein one of Muhammad’s wives is forced to wear the hijab, the veil that Islamic women must use to hide their faces. This novel, which Zarina finally has the courage to finish, centers on her resentment of such archaic traditions held by the old world followers of Islam. One of these devout apostles of Muhammad is her own father, Afzal, who views his daughter’s novel as pornographic blasphemy.
Zarina’s widowed father is savvy when it comes to the secular world, owning one of the most financially successful cab companies in Atlanta. However, the man is extremely sentimental when it comes to his religion. Afzal uses the internet to arrange dates for his eldest daughter, searching muslimlove.com to find the right kind of man for her. Afzal does this because he loves her, but primarily because his beliefs demand that a father must marry off his eldest daughter before he can give his blessing to his youngest. Even though Mahwish has been engaged for several years, she’s been forbidden to marry until her older sister Zarina finds a husband. Zarina is a smart, 32 years old, Harvard-educated, modern young woman; in contrast, 20-something Mahwish is still her daddy’s little girl and highly influenced by popular culture and social media. Eli, the young man Afzal finds online, is not only a follower of Islam but a convert to the religion. This, in the old man’s eyes, makes Eli an even better catch. What Afzal ultimately discovers is that Eli and Zarina are a perfect match in so many ways.
Director Ron OJ Parson has directed a crisp, often funny, deeply moving production of Akhtar’s play. Staged upon Scott Davis’ sparse set, which utilizes only a few unpretentious pieces of furniture and some Oriental rugs to delineate various locales, a simple and effective story unfolds. Adorned by a series of beautifully lit hanging glass orbs, this production, with lovely lighting design by Sarah Hughey, is stunningly elegant and focuses nicely on the four characters.
Ayad Akhtar’s characters seem to be representatives of differing viewpoints, rather than real people. They’re a quartet of contrasts and complements, serving primarily as a device created to voice the playwright’s politics. The cast, however, led by the excellent Rom Barkhordar as Afzal, is eloquent and effective in telling this story. As the focus of this play, Mr. Barkhordar holds our attention well as an incredibly strong, deeply loving father who has become enslaved by his own beliefs. Shane Kenyon is likable, gentle and empathetic as Eli, the brunt of Akhtar’s humor. He’s makes a fine young man who deeply cares for and defends his new wife, truly rising to the occasion near the end and becoming the man Afzal always wanted for Zarina. As Mahwish, the lovely Minita Gandhi is perfect as an effervescent, bubbleheaded young woman who’s blithely obedient to her father. Susaan Jamshidi has a more difficult job as Zarina. Her character gives voice to most of the playwright’s idealogy, which makes the rebellious Zarina less a flesh-and-blood woman than a spokesperson. Ms. Jamshidi does her best with this, truly coming to life in the play’s final moments. However, it’s the weakness is in what the playwright has given her to work with, not in Ms. Jamshidi’s performance.
This conclusion to Victory Gardens’ 40th season is an admirable piece of theatre. It’s a work that explores that confusing space between the religious and the secular. It helps contemporary American audiences to understand the often strange and confusing world of Islam. Deep down Akhtar has actually written a fascinating, universal story about the unique bond between all parents and their children that will stay with audiences for a long time to come.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 12-July 12 byVictory Gardens Theater, at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.