Review: “The Who & The What” in Mill Valley

Playwright Ayad Akhtar burst on the theatrical scene in 2013 with Disgraced, a searing drama about identity politics and Islamophobia which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2016, Marin Theatre Company presented Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand, a play that took on capitalism and Islamic fanaticism. Gender issues in the Islamic community are the focus of Akhtar’s The Who & The What running now at MTC through March 24.

The play opens in the kitchen of the home of Afzal (Alfredo Huereca) where his daughters Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) and Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim) are engaged in a sisterly debate about marriage.  Mahwish, a traditionalist, wants to get married but feels she can’t until her older sister is betrothed. Zarina, who was engaged at one point, has lost interest in dating and sees no reason for her sister to wait.

Afzal does what every loving father would do for his eldest single daughter – he opens up a fake account under her name on a Muslim dating site and starts interviewing prospective boyfriends. One of the prospects, a convert to Islam named Eli (Patrick Alperone), had actually met Zarina before. They’ll date and eventually marry which allows Mahwish to marry. They’ll all live happily ever after. 

Not quite. Zarina, you see, is a writer, and her relationship with Eli has given her the impetus to continue her work on a novel about the prophet Mohammed. It questions Mohammed’s infallibility, is sexually graphic, and challenges the religious suppression of women. When Eli reads the book, he’s stunned. When Afzal reads the book, he’s apoplectic.

It’s an odd combination of situation comedy and theological debate that doesn’t mix particularly well. It’s no fault of the cast, who are quite good. Director Hana S. Sharif elicits a performance from Huereca that elevates Afzal above the typical meddling parent and Ibrahim is very effective as a Muslim woman in a modern world battling against her own subjugation. Ahmad is amusing as the younger sister taking advantage of loopholes in the Koran to maintain her virginity. Alparone’s Eli may be the most interesting character despite the thankless role of plot propeller.

It’s the script that falters, with dialogue that is often trite and a conclusion that feels rushed and wholly unbelievable.  The Who & The What strives to be both a Muslim-American comedy and a drama about religious orthodoxy. It has its moments but with each subtracting from the other, it succeeds at neither.  

‘The Who & The What’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through March 24 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.5208. $25–$60. marintheatre.org.

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the Pacific Sun.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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