At its fiercest, Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who & the What” bares some of the same teeth as his riveting, 2013 Pulitzer-copping “Disgraced.” Both explore Pakistani-American tensions arising from clashes with the majority culture, the prizewinner centering on an attorney in a boutique Gotham firm, the new work eyeing an emigrant Atlanta family. But while the La Jolla Playhouse world premiere assembles all the right ingredients for another coruscating theatrical event, too often it sags when it seems to want to soar. Akhtar’s who and what are potent enough. It’s his “how” that proves questionable.
Initial signs point to a domestic comedy in which older daughter Zarina (Monika Jolly) — a starchy academic, something of a shrew to be tamed — needs to be married off to leave the younger, flightier Mahwish (Meera Rohit Kumbhani, excellent) free to wed. Self-possessed and wry when alone together, both women shrink under the heavy thumb of papa Afzal (Bernard White), a self-made millionaire and genial tyrant whose tolerance is tested whenever his princesses threaten to stray from a traditional Islamic line.
Dark clouds appear early, as Mahwish covertly engages in some Quran-flouting canoodling to keep her fiance on the hook. Meanwhile Zarina — still resenting Afzal for breaking up her engagement to an Irish Catholic years before — is buried in an incendiary fiction project which will both personalize the Prophet as a flawed, lusting male, and indict the Muslim practice of veiling women as cruelly oppressive and theologically skewed. (Real-life activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali is evoked to point up the provocation.)
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Afzal’s anguish alone, at the shame of Zarina’s novel and potential fundamentalist backlash, reaches near-operatic proportions in White’s bravura turn. White convert Eli (a fine, smoldering Kai Lennox), Zarina’s unexpected suitor, brings in the perspective of the insider who’s nevertheless an outsider, not to mention another target for Afzal, at a loss to understand why modern men can’t keep their women in check the old-fashioned way.
Yet, having carefully stacked his kindling for a robust dramatic bonfire, Akhtar keeps approaching it with a damp match. Zarina’s opening monologue natters on about love’s messiness and Rilke and her late mom, without establishing a relationship with the audience or setting up the kind of play that’s to follow. Act one simply stops dead without leaving us on any particular anticipatory note (though it does allow for the passage of time, and the changing of Jack Magaw’s attractive, Moorish-influenced set).
Helmer Kimberly Senior, a frequent Akhtar collaborator, elicits crisp, nuanced performances from her players, yet the seams keep showing through awkward scene changes and tonal shifts.
Finally, having brought his characters to a morally fraught impasse reminiscent of Jonathan Tolins’ “The Twilight of the Golds,” Akhtar opts for an abrupt, sentimental epilogue belying much of what precedes it. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the intermissionless “Disgraced,” which never lets up on the thumbscrews as the protagonist is systematically stripped of job, faith and marriage to mull over an uncertain future.
Of course, no scribe is required to keep writing the same play or the same kind of play. But when all the elements seem deliberately constituted to go nuclear, and scene after scene serves to contribute in kind, the playwright’s choice to wind things up in a pat, Lifetime-movie fashion — through another bland, characterless monologue, yet — becomes that much more regrettable, and puzzling to boot.