The Claire Tow Theater is a 112-seat theater at Lincoln Center. It was built on top of the building that houses the larger Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi Newhouse Theaters and opened just two years ago. The Claire Tow houses Lincoln Center’s “LCT3” program: theater featuring new playwrights, directors and designers. All of the tickets for the Claire Tow productions are just $20. Lincoln Center is targeting a new audience of 21-35 year olds with inexpensive tickets at Claire Tow and a program they can sign up for which features post-theater parties and $32 tickets to the main theaters. (The shows I’ve attended are getting a much older demographic, though–pretty typical for matinees).
The LCT3 program started in 2008 with just two shows a year–but with a dedicated theater, they have increased that number to three or four plus some special events. I only started attending this past fall. I saw Luce by JC Lee in the fall and Stop Hitting Yourself by Kirk Lynn and the Austin, Texas-based ensemble theater group Rude Mechs.
This week I saw my third LCT3 play: “The Who and The What” by Ayad Akhtar. Interestly, LCT3 featured another Akhtar play, “Disgraced,” just last season. Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Akhtar is also an actor and novelist (American Dervish).
“The Who and The What” is a story about an American family centered around a domineering father. The mother has died of cancer and the father and his two grown daughters are adjusting. The family are immigrants from Pakistan and, though everyone is dressed in modern clothing, we figure out that their Muslim religion is central for all of them.
The play deals with how the girls make decisions about their own lives, taking into account the expectations of their father and their community, their religion and their own desires. In particular, the play focuses on each girl’s decision to marry. The father is responsible for the break-up of the older daughter, Zarina’s previous engagement to a non-Muslim. But he is also responsible for her new relationship to Eli, a white convert to Muslim who is a the leader of a mosque. The younger daughter, Mahwish, is engaged to a Muslim she has known for her whole life. But is he really the one for her?
I enjoyed the play. I enjoyed the actors and the family dynamics. The father was a bundle of contradictions–he happily adopted modern technology and was proud of his daughters’ accomplishments, but retained old-fashioned ideas. He seems caring and sensitive, but can turn dark and insulting. He says the only thing worthwhile he has produced are his daughters, but he is willing to turn his back on them. Bernard White’s portrayal of the father constantly surprised me. Some of the interpersonal dynamics were overly simplified, though, in order to spend more time on religious themes. For example, I would have like to know more about Mahwish’s relationship to her fiancé. Instead it is all summed up in one sexual act.
Some of the religious nuances were lost on me. The broader themes of faith, dealing with modern life, and how women are treated in Islamic culture include detailed discussions such as Zarina pointing out that the interpretations of scripture that resulted in Muslim women wearing the veil are faulty.
In addition, I had a hard time relating to a large part of the story which centers on how Mohammed, the Prophet, is portrayed in Muslim culture and how he lives in people’s hearts and minds. Zarina was always the brains in the family. She graduated Harvard, got an MFA and is writing a novel about women and Islam. She’s been writing it for a few years and, until she meets Eli, she has a bad case of writer’s block. Her book is an imagined story of Mohammed, the Prophet, making him more human. How she has written about the Prophet in her novel becomes a key part of the play. For me, the vehemence of the reaction to her book, which is based on strong personal connections between believers and the Prophet, is hard to fathom. In the end, I left feeling that religion brought only unhappiness and discord to this family, not joy.
The Who & the What
By Ayad Akhtar; directed by Kimberly Senior; sets by Jack Magaw; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Jill B C Du Boff; stage manager, Megan Schwarz Dickert; general manager, Jessica Niebanck; production manager, Jeff Hamlin. Presented by LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater, André Bishop, producing artistic director; Adam Siegel, managing director; Paige Evans, artistic director/LCT3. At the Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center; 212-239-6200, lct3.org. Through July 13. Running time: two hours.
WITH: Tala Ashe (Mahwish), Greg Keller (Eli), Nadine Malouf (Zarina) and Bernard White (Afzal).
WHAT OTHER PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT “THE WHO & THE WHAT”
The New York Times gave it a mixed review
Newsday wasn’t thrilled in its review
The New York Post in its review also preferred Akhtar’s earlier play, “Disgraced”