Playing with stereotypes in “The Who & The What”

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Ayad Akhtar, the Milwaukee-bred writer of Pakistani heritage who received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Disgraced,” his work about Muslim-American identity, is not an entirely subtle playwright. But he is exceptionally gifted at conjuring smart, funny characters and at upending easily accepted stereotypes in unexpected and surprising ways.

The latest example of his approach to some of the quandaries of contemporary existence is “The Who & the What,” which debuted at Lincoln Center last year, and is now receiving its Midwest premiere at Victory Gardens Theater. The production features brisk, unaffected direction by Ron OJ Parson, and a cast of four stylish actors, all of whom share Akhtar’s flair for hip humor and playing against the grain.

‘THE WHO & THE WHAT’

Recommended

When: Through July 12

Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater,

2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $15 – $60

Info: (773) 871-3000;

http://www.victorygardens.org

Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

Akhtar’s play, it should be noted, is sure to find a wide audience in this country. But without question there are many other places in the world where it would unquestionably land the writer in a great deal of very hot water.

At the center of “The Who & the What” is Afzal (Rom Barkhorder), the father of two grown daughters who is a well-to-do owner of a fleet of taxis. Although quite assimilated in some respects, he remains a strict religious conservative.

Rom Barkhordar in “The Who & the What” at Victory Gardens Theater. (Photo: Michael Courier)

Rom Barkhordar in “The Who & the What” at Victory Gardens Theater. (Photo: Michael Courier)

Zarina (Susaan Jamshidi), the older of Afzal’s daughters, is a bristlingly smart writer and feminist and a proponent of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born activist. She loves her father, and still lives in his home, despite the fact that he forbid her to marry the Irish Catholic man she loved. Zarina’s sister, Mahwish (Minita Gandhi), is a sexy material girl who has kept her handpicked Muslim boyfriend from straying (and her virginity technically in tact) by engaging in an alternative form of sex.

Desperate to find Zarina a “suitable” Muslim husband, Afzal deviously signs her up for an Islam-based dating site on the web. And he is convinced he has found an ideal candidate in Eli (Shane Kenyon), a Detroit-born convert to Islam who runs a mosque devoted to supplying community services. She reluctantly agrees to meet him for coffee, and much to her own surprise, her antipathy slowly morphs into affection. What’s more, as time goes on, the writer’s bloc from which she has been suffering since the forced breakup abates, and she completes her book about women and Islam.

Susaan Jamshidi and Shane Kenyon in “The Who & the What” at Victory Gardens Theater. (Photo: Michael Courier)

Susaan Jamshidi and Shane Kenyon in “The Who & the What” at Victory Gardens Theater. (Photo: Michael Courier)

Zarina’s book becomes a big problem for it seeks to explore the true nature of the prophet Muhammad by giving the stories in the Koran a more realistic reading – one that reflects her own fierce opposition to, as she puts it, “what the faith does to women.” The book will make Eli’s life exceptionally difficult. But it completely enrages and alienates her father.

Jamshidi radiates intelligence, and the ache that comes with having to choose between being truthful to herself or faithful to her father. Gandhi is all hypocritical mischief – an unliberated soul in a pop culture body. And Kenyon makes some sense of Eli – an earnest but nerdy guy who discovers his spine. But it is Barkhordar, who has played a couple of Muslim characters before (most notably in A Red Orchid’s production of “In a Garden”) who steals the show as a wily but charming fundamentalist. Akhtar obviously enjoyed conjuring the dichotomy of this character; so does the actor.

Scott Davis’ minimalist set features a great sweep of Arabic calligraphy drawn over the back wall of the stage, with the use of a curtain that might be construed as an understated reference to the hijab.

Without question “The Who & the What” is engaging. But as in “Disgraced,” it too often feels as if its characters are the overly convenient puppets of the playwright, rather too meticulously shaped for the purpose of generating dialectical discussion.

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