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The Who & the What

A Muslim family in America is roiled by the universal conflict between the generations.

Aila Peck, Turna Mete, and Rom Barkhordar in The Who & The What, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, at the Huntington Theatre Company.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

Zarina and Mahwish, the grown daughters of Afzal, a successful Pakistani immigrant now living in Atlanta, are torn between their love and respect for their father and their need to fully assimilate into American culture. Afzal is a conservative Muslim, determined to guide his daughters into following their religion, according to his beliefs. However, if you change the names of the central characters in Ayad Akhtar's play The Who & the What, now running at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, the work would be equally descriptive of generation gaps in Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant families, unlike the bracing whirlwind of his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Disgraced.

The Who & the What is set in 2014, but covers a time span of several years in the life of widower Afzal and the two daughters he is raising on his own. Afzal wants nothing more than to make his daughter Zarina happy. Without her knowledge, he has posted her description on a Muslim dating site and interviews the men who respond. He feels he owes her a husband, since he forbade her marriage to the Irish-Catholic man she loved. Afzal chooses Eli, an American-born, Muslim convert. After the couple meets, they marry within a year.

Meanwhile, Mahwish, a nurse in training, has married her childhood sweetheart, also Muslim, but lusts after one of her teachers. The strands of the plot and the issues raised — the conflict between father and daughters, the treatment of women, the problems of the immigrant — are nuanced and complicated in this Huntington Theatre production of Akhtar's play, directed by M. Bevin O'Gara.

The major difference from other plays or television programs about similar families in turmoil lies in one other character, the Prophet Mohammed. Although he remains offstage, he dominates the twists of the action. In her rebellion against her father, the 32-year-old Zarina, a Harvard graduate, has written a novel about the Prophet, to humanize him beyond the metaphor of a godlike creature. Her book emphasizes his human desires, some of them erotic and certainly blasphemous to believers like her father who, after he discovers the manuscript and reads it, becomes furious. In the confrontation, she denies his wish to destroy it, and he pronounces her dead. The play wraps up two years later in a final scene that is no less unsatisfactory than it is unsurprising.

Rom Barkhordar reprises the role of Afzal, which he played at Victory Gardens in Chicago. Barkhordar portrays the biblical strength of the character, loud and blustering, rolling over everyone else onstage by interrupting their responses in a father-knows-best manner. Aila Peck as Zarina is appropriately troubled — secretive about her writing and repressed in her torn dualities. Turna Mete as Mahwish is, like Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, a dutiful younger sister with an eye for the men. The most believable member of the acting quartet is Joseph Marrella, an affable husband, in love with Zarina and supportive of her, but troubled by her secrets.

The highlight of the Huntington production is the scenery designed by Cristina Todesco. The golden-glowing, three-sided wall opens to disclose the modern kitchen in the rear. Other detailed rooms where the family lives slide out from the wings. The contrast between the old-world, antique wall that hides the modern rooms is more evocative of the divide between the immigrant's dreams and their newly adopted land than Akhtar's play. M.L. Dogg's sound mix, enhanced by Saraswathi Jones' original music, supports the disconnect between the Middle East and the West.

The Who & the What feels like a soap opera whose characters and stories we've all heard from before. One might wish that Akhtar had taken more than a surface dip into the tenets of the religion and its effects on the lives of the believers.