Every playwriting student sooner or later learns Chekhov’s dictum: A gun introduced in the first half of a play must be discharged in the second. Usually the gun is literal, but Ayad Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer prize last year for Disgraced, takes a novel approach in his follow-up drama, The Who & the What. Literally, I mean: The gun is a novel. In Act One, it’s a manuscript Zarina Jatt is struggling to finish. In Act Two, the manuscript, now completed, starts a ruckus.
There’s something touchingly old-fashioned about the idea of a mere book causing so much trouble in a contemporary story, but the Jatt family of Atlanta are assimilated Muslim-Americans of Pakistani extraction, and the novel is an explicitly sexual fantasy about the historical Muhammad. Zarina, 32 and Harvard-educated, wants to show how some troubling Islamic precepts descend from misreadings of the Prophet’s biography: We know what he was, she contends, but not who he was. By who, she mostly means his carnality, and how it led to the imposition of the hijab. She is not without righteous feminist anger in this, and the play, rather too neatly, attempts to unpack through her character what it has taken centuries to stuff into the suitcase of the Koran.
To this end, Akhtar provides, as he did in Disgraced, a foursquare grid of contrasts and complements: Zarina’s younger sister, Mahwish, is more blithely obedient to received Muslim precepts (though she finesses the matter of premarital sex with her boyfriend); Afzal, their widowed father, is practical about the secular world (he owns a successful cab company) but sentimental about the holy; and Eli, a convert who gets set up on a date with Zarina, is more interested in running the soup kitchen at his mosque than in intellectual pretensions about faith and fiction:
Zarina: I’m writing a novel.
Eli: What’s it about?
Zarina: Gender politics.
Eli: And then what happens?
The date itself — because this is in the comic part of the story — is arranged by Afzal, posing as his daughter on a website called muslimlove.com. Predictably, it does not go well; Zarina is too prickly and Eli too accommodating. But as certain non-Chekhovian rules seem to require these days, that initial distance must be overcome, even without any evidence or explanation, so the conflict can tighten. This was a problem with Disgraced as well: Characters too often seemed like sacks of positions hung swaying from the plot. But at least in that play the positions and the plot aligned and informed each other, so the working out of the disagreements was highly theatrical. (In fact, it was terrifying.) Here, with less at stake for the characters, and with their sudden, unmotivated changes of behavior, the theological argument is left to predominate, making the play more intellectually than dramatically stimulating. Which is fine for a while; as recent history continues to demonstrate, theology matters. But when it comes to a crisis, a play wants people, not just themes, even if those themes are efficiently rigged, as they are here, to detonate all at once.
Akhtar is clearly a skilled writer, with an almost mathematical approach to structure. And I admire his commitment to exploring the no-man’s-land between secularity and faith. He certainly understands the nature of conflict. But he hasn’t yet convinced me that he can write living people, and without them, the loftiest conflict is just shouting. (The performances in this LCT3 production are, perhaps unavoidably, spotty.) Zarina’s problem with the received Muhammad is Akhtar’s problem too: He gives us the what. He’s still working on the who.
The Who & the What is at the Claire Tow through July 27.