The conflict between tradition and assimilation has long been a staple of immigrant drama. No mystery here: Not only is the experience true to life, but there's nothing more theatrical than a family at war with itself.
In the "Who & the What," now having its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, Ayad Akhtar explores this timeless situation through the clashes within a prosperous Pakistani American family living in Atlanta.
As with the playwright's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Disgraced," "The Who & the What" intrepidly treads on sensitive matters regarding Islam. And once again religion proves to be the kerosene that turns ordinary squabbles into five-alarm conflagrations.
Not surprisingly, "The Who & the What" is at its best in scenes of confrontation. Enacted with fierce conviction by a four-person ensemble directed by Kimberly Senior, the play comes alive when the disputes turn acrimonious and the heartbreak is palpable behind the hollering.
Patriarch Afzal (Bernard White), a South Asian immigrant, went from driving a cab to owning 30% of the taxis in Atlanta. An unstoppable force of upward mobility, he is now a widower focused on the happiness of his two daughters, Zarina (Monika Jolly,) a Harvard-educated writer struggling to complete a mysterious book, and Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani), who's engaged to be married but has been asked to wait until her older sister finds a suitable husband.
Not one to let fate work itself out, Afzal finds Zarina a man on the dating website Muslimlove.com. Eli (Kai Lennox), his son-in-law of choice, is a convert to the faith, a plumber by trade and an idealist by nature. A graduate school dropout with brains to spare, he runs a mosque with a soup kitchen in a poor part of town.
Despite Zarina's initial resistance to the arrangement, the match is a success and leads to marriage. Once this is settled, the play shifts into high contentious gear. That book Zarina has been having such difficulty writing is a novel that takes a feminist look at the prophet and his revelation regarding women and the veil. The perspective is not only daringly unorthodox but erotically suggestive.
"Pornography about the prophet!" Afzal thunders after finding out what's in the book. He's told that the novel deals with gender politics, a term he's not familiar with. When it is explained that this has to do with the relationship between men and women, he shouts, "What does that have to do with politics?"
The family divides into two camps, with Mahwish siding with her father and Eli siding with Zarina. Rather than choosing between them and scoring ideological points, the playwright exposes the contradictions within characters whose loyalties are divided in the most painful way possible: To be true to themselves they must reject something that they cherish deeply.
Though it crackles with intelligence and behavioral truth, the play isn't as smoothly structured as "Disgraced." The first half has a dawdling, novelistic tempo, concluding with an intermission that seems arbitrary.
Akhtar, who has successfully tried his hand at fiction and screenwriting, may have won a top prize in drama, but he's not yet a seasoned dramatist. His inexperience reveals itself here in the somewhat belabored way he introduces characters and in his roundabout approach to plot.
The play is bookended — expediently, it must be said — with direct address monologues by Zarina. The first is on the nature of love, the thematic string binding the work together. The second ties up narrative strands Akhtar doesn't either have the inclination or time to dramatize.
Whatever the case, the organization of the material doesn't always seem organic to the stage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the explanation of the title. Zarina, in her final speech, tells us that, according to 20th century French philosopher and deconstructionist extraordinaire Jacques Derrida, love has two modes, the who and the what. The latter concerns things you can say about a person, the former expresses his or her "unique singularity."
These are provocative, lovely ideas, but they seem like intellectual substitutes for dramatic enactments. What's curious about this is that Akhtar is so eminently gifted in writing scenes that quake with powerful emotion.
When hidden truths are flushed out, the energy onstage is thrillingly pugilistic. Better still, the characters fight in a manner that is wholly consistent with what we know about them. Some of the more expository scenes — Afzal and Eli's first meeting, Zarina and Eli's first date — can seem a little artificially amped up, but the moments of strife, both religious and romantic, are frighteningly believable.
On a minimalist set designed by Jack Magaw, the actors square off with so few items of furniture between them they might as well be in a boxing ring. Senior, who earned acclaim for her productions of "Disgraced" in Chicago and New York, concentrates our attention on the wrangling nature of these intimate relationships.
Each of the actors is complicatedly superb. White's Afzal is a natural scene-stealer. As quick moving as he is quick witted, he's a good-hearted hustler, a man who conquered the American Dream through shrewd hyperactive maneuvering. Passivity is not in his DNA the way it is in Kumbhani's Mahwish, a character who is more adept at keeping secrets from herself than from those around her.
Jolly's Zarina begins as a fortress and ends as an emotionally forthright woman — still self-possessed but more supple in her relations with other. Lennox's Eli — this is exceptionally high praise — stands as her equal.
Part embryonic novel, part nascent drama, "The Who & the What" hasn't completely sorted out its artistic identity. But Akhtar knows his characters well, and this production makes us care about each and every one of them.
'The Who & the What'
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 9.
Tickets: Start at $15
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours