Potent MTC drama about women and Islam is cerebral, intimate, witty

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

In the Marin Theater Company’s production of “The Who & The What,” Afzal (Alfredo Huereca) shows affection to his eldest daughter, Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim). Photo: Kevin Berne.

Alfredo Huereca’s performance as the father in MTC’s new drama, “The Who & The What,” is by far the strongest, the best of the season. Anywhere.

As Afzal, he’s powerful, demanding, rigid.

Confused, weak, vulnerable.

Gentle and loving.

Angry to the nth degree.

So human I could feel all those contradictory feelings stir inside myself opening night even though I, unlike the fundamental protagonist, am not a believer in Islam.

Marin Theater Company’s play is, at once, ultra-cerebral, emotionally intimate and dense. And witty.

And touching to the point of making my eyes water.

And despite Huereca’s scene-stealing mastery and domination, it’s really about women and their culture and generation clashes — and deep explorations of faith — in a close yet fractured Muslim family.

On its face, a theme that’s hardly new.

In point of fact, playwright Ayad Akhtar borrowed it from William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” — or, more accurately, from the Bard-derivative Tony Award-winning musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” for which he’d seen an ad.

That show featured music and lyrics by Cole Porter embellishing a script by Samuel and Bella Spewack that dealt with a marriage riddled by constant bickering, the everlasting battle of the sexes, and a younger daughter not allowed to marry until an older one was wed.

The 48-year-old Akhtar — who was raised as a Muslim in Milwaukee with Pakistani roots but locates “The Who & The What” in contemporary Atlanta — won a Pulitzer for “The Disgraced,” which I saw at the Berkeley Rep and headlined a “potent probe of conflicted Muslim mind.” I could easily use the same phrase about this play.

His “The Invisible Hand,” which I also caught, ran at the MTC in 2016.

All three Akhtar plays question (and are critical of) in one way or another aspects of the Islam faith. With a couple of skinny bones thrown to today’s buzz topic, immigration.

Main characters in “The Who & The What,” which played at Lincoln Center in New York City in 2014, are Afzal, a modern cab-company owner mourning for his cancer-casualty wife and repulsed by his eldest daughter Zarina’s novel about women and Islam that challenges the idea of Muhammad’s infallibility; Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim), an intellectual scribe based on Akhtar himself (andhis real-life travails); Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad), his younger daughter who’s supportive of her father’s attempt to score a husband for Zarina by faking her identity on a matchmaking website; and Eli (Patrick Alparone), a young imam who lets Zarina see the overlap between her modern life and heritage.

Director Hana S. Sharif, is in effect “on loan” from the Baltimore Center Stage, where she’s associate artistic director, and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where she’ll be the new artistic director.

She ensures an explosive impact toward the tail of the one-act, 100-minute play — but only after allowing the playwright’s methodical exposition to slow down the first 60 percent so much that more than one playgoer checked his or her watch.

The word-heavy play is jump-started by a dissertation on sex and suffering. It ends, after a family confrontation as potent as a thunderclap in an echo chamber, with a wry wink at gender politics — after detouring to a meandering philosophical tabletop discussion that might be dubbed “My Dinner with The Prophet.”

I resolutely believe, however, that both discussion and entire theatrical journey are worth checking out.

“The Who & The What” will play at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, through March 24. Night shows, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees, 1 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $10 to $70. Information: (415) 388-5208 or www.marintheatre.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com/or voodee@sbcglobal.net

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →