”Can’t you see I’m conflicted? Isn’t that what good art is supposed to do?” asks one idealistic lover to another in Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & the What. Like Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play Other Desert Cities, this is the tale of a writer-daughter whose damning book has the potential to tear her family apart. Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 play Disgraced, bound for Broadway in the fall, here switches his focus from work colleagues to families. But he maintains a firm hold on a recurring theme in his work: the crisis of identity and its eventual consequences. (Like Disgraced, the new show runs at Lincoln Center’s cozy Claire Tow rooftop venue, where it plays through July 13.)
As Who opens, two sisters indulge in some decidedly R-rated chat about sexual practices and their propriety given their Muslim-American upbringing. Mahwish (Tala Ashe), a malaprop-prone girl engaged to her childhood sweetie, seeks guidance from her unmarried, headstrong older sib Zarina (Nadine Malouf), a Harvard-educated, aspiring novelist who has no plans to settle on a hubby anytime soon. Their adoring father, Afzal (played marvelously by Bernard White), is a widower and taxi entrepreneur who’s strong on religious tradition but not above modern innovation, most notably in pretending to be Zarina on a Muslim dating website to net her a man. Afzal succeeds, ensnaring Eli (Greg Keller), a white Muslim convert who overcomes Zarina’s objections and embarks on a courtship. Afzal then discovers a long-in-the-works manuscript penned by Zarina containing inflammatory imagery and suppositions about the prophet Muhammad.
Like Other Desert Cities (another Lincoln Center premiere), Akhtar employs some shopworn melodramatic cues that play entertainingly but don’t always convince. He’s on surer footing when it comes to character, and Afzal in particular is full of layers — especially in White’s piercing, fully committed portrayal. As the central love interests, Malouf and Keller are appealing, if a bit stiff, and they don’t exhibit much romantic chemistry.
Kimberly Senior — who also directed The Who & the What, with White, at California’s La Jolla Playhouse earlier this year — creates a smooth terrain for the four-member cast. And scenic designer Jack Magaw’s square-box room sets nicely dovetail with Zarina’s thoughts on the suffocation of women’s rights. Like Zarina’s messy, impassioned book, The Who & the What stirs the pot in unexpectedly dramatic ways. B