Performing Arts

American as apple pie: ‘The Who & the What’ explores a vivid corner of the immigrant experience

Tony Mirrcandani (Afzal) and Kat Nejat (Mahwish) in “The Who & The What.”
Tony Mirrcandani (Afzal) and Kat Nejat (Mahwish) in “The Who & The What.” Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Rich humor, poignancy and boiling anger coexist with surprising ease in Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What,” a sharply crafted family drama that offers a textured view of the Pakistani-American experience.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s crisp production, directed by Eric Rosen, captures strong performances across the board. Tony Mirrcandani especially is simply spectacular as a self-made Atlanta businessman who struggles to reconcile certain traditional Islamic customs with deep love for his two assimilated daughters.

Mirrcandani is gifted with a booming voice and brings Shakespearean gravitas to the stage as he delivers a carefully calibrated performance that clearly delineates the character’s profound inner conflicts.

Mirrcandani plays Afzal, who immigrated from Pakistan decades earlier and has built the largest taxicab company in Atlanta. He still grieves for his wife, who died of cancer, but occupies himself by trying to steer his daughters’ lives.

The younger, Mahwish (Kat Nejat), is a nursing student, while her big sister, Zarina (Rania Salem Manganaro), who studied literature and creative writing, is privately working on a novel in which she seeks to humanize Muhammad while writing critically of the role of women in Islam.

Zarina, still recovering from the breakup of a relationship a few years earlier, is unattached. She is unaware that her father, posing as Zarina, has set up an account on an Islamic dating site. His goal is to screen prospective husbands for his daughter.

That’s how he meets Eli (Rusty Sneary), a young American whose politically radical parents raised him in a predominantly black neighborhood in Detroit and who has converted to the Muslim faith. Eli passes muster and Azfal then implores — begs, really — Zarina to meet with the young man at least once.

Mahwish, meanwhile, is in a long-term engagement to a young man named Haroon, who seems to be decidedly unpopular with her family, and privately has her eye on a muscular GRE instructor named Manuel.

The issue at the outset is whether Zarina will find a man she likes well enough to marry, because Islamic custom dictates that Mahwish cannot marry until Zarina lands a husband.

A much bigger issue erupts when Afzal finds Zarina’s manuscript, reads her novel and is outraged by what he sees as “blasphemy” and “pornographic” descriptions of Muhammad’s desire for his daughter-in-law. The novel’s eventual publication has seismic consequences and creates what could be a permanent rift in the family.

Akhtar has embedded his profoundly serious themes about Islamic faith and gender roles in the modern world in an accessible story of a family whose conflicts aren’t all that unusual.

Many of the incongruities between contemporary American sensibilities and Muslim tradition are inherently comic, and Rosen and his actors successfully mine the play’s humor without obscuring Akhtar’s serious intent. Akhtar is a superior craftsman and has assembled the pieces of this comic drama with impressive skill.

That said, there are moments when the piece edges uncomfortably close to sitcom territory, and it concludes on a note that feels pat. But for the most part the playwright keeps a tight rein on the material and gives his actors opportunities to create deeply felt performances with complex characters in increasingly complicated relationships.

Afzal is a larger-than-life character with a volatile emotional life as played by Mirrcandani. This performance is vastly entertaining, so much so that things are less interesting when Afzal isn’t onstage. That’s no criticism of the other performers, who are quite good.

Manganaro successfully captures Zarina’s superior intellect and feminist anger while never losing sight of the character’s softer side. The charismatic Nejat is effective as Mahwish, who feels more than she thinks. And Sneary offers a unique portrayal of an inner-city imam who wants to help the poor and feels like a permanent outsider.

Rep audiences have seen quite a bit of scenic designer Jack Magaw’s work during the Rosen years and for good reason. Here he gives us a handsome two-story set in which sliding platforms allow for smooth scene transitions. It’s a model of simplicity and fluidity. The other design elements, especially Paul Toben’s lighting, are highly effective.

Akhtar is a prodigiously talented writer. I will now cast my vote for the Rep to stage his “Disgraced,” which just opened on Broadway and earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. He’s someone we need to hear more from.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Onstage

“The Who & the What” runs through Nov. 16 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut streets. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.

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