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THEATER REVIEW: “The Who And The What” world premiere

The characters in La Jolla Playhouse’s latest world premiere, Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who And The What,” straddle that fine line many of us tread, between family cultural and/or religious traditions and the modern world.

The play, originally workshopped in La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA New Work Series, runs through March 9 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre.

Zarina (Monika Jolly), elder daughter of Pakistani American widower Afzal (Bernard White) is 32, living at home in Atlanta, single and happily so. Dad is less thrilled, not least because 25-year-old daughter Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) wants to marry, but Muslim tradition says she must wait until her sister ties the knot.

Afzal is extremely proud of his daughters (“They are the sum achievement of an otherwise cosmically useless existence,” he says), but he can’t resist meddling a bit. He uses modern technology (Muslimlove.com) to help out, posing as Zarina in search of a good match.

What Afzal doesn’t know is that Zarina is still smarting from his refusal to let her marry her first love – an Irish Catholic – and is questioning the whole male-dominated nature of the faith. She’s even secretly writing a book about women and Islam, in an attempt to humanize the Prophet.

In a wonderfully funny and poignant scene, Afzal screens Eli (Kai Lennox) on a “coffee date.” Eli nearly bolts when he sees the setup, but stays around long enough to realize that he sat next to (and was attracted to) Zarina at a lecture by a feminist Somali writer.

It’s a familiar story, but with a Muslim twist: Eli, the whitebread kid who grew up in Detroit among Muslims, has converted and now runs a mosque – specializing not in religion but in serving the poor (he runs a soup kitchen). Life has changed and so has our relationship to religion. For many, service is at the heart of it rather than piety, rules and ritual.

Meanwhile, the more traditional Mahwish has her own problems with the faith, reflected in her relationship with boyfriend and unseen future husband Haroon.

Akhtar has a way with dialogue that engages without sounding scripted. These characters talk like people we all know, whether or not the specific topic touches our lives directly.

Director Kimberly Senior keeps the show moving, aided by Jack Magaw’s minimal but effective set design with movable set with pieces that roll on and offstage quickly and efficiently. There are some lovely backdrops as well.

Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design indicates location without the need of lots of set pieces.

The cast is excellent. Jolly’s rebel-with-a-cause Zarina makes a nice contrast with Kumbhani’s more traditional Mahwish. It’s easy to see why Zarina loves and argues with Lennox’s Eli – they’re both strong, committed and a bit stubborn.

It’s difficult to get mad at White’s Afzal, even when he’s doing such old-fashioned things, because his humanity and love for his daughters shine right through.

“The Who And The What” is a little bit of Shakespeare, a little bit of “Other Desert Cities” (recently produced at the Globe) and a lot of funny, sometimes poignant, always absorbing dialogue that will leave you with conversational material for days.

See it before it moves on to Lincoln Center for a projected June opening.

The details

“The Who And The What” plays through March 9 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.