BWW Review: ArtsWest's THE WHO AND THE WHAT Doesn't Connect with the Who or the What

BWW Review: ArtsWest's THE WHO AND THE WHAT Doesn't Connect with the Who or the What
Haley Alaji and Monika Jolly in
The Who and the What at ArtsWest.
Photo credit: John McLellan

Playwright Ayad Akhtar is one of the darlings of contemporary theater with his Pulitzer Prize winning play "Disgraced" as well as his acclaimed "The Invisible Hand" (my favorite of his) getting production after production around the world. He manages to take on seriously hot button topics and expose them with rich and engaging characters and his "The Who and the What", currently playing at ArtsWest and co-produced with Pratidhwani, is no exception. But his shows are by no means bulletproof. These characters need to be performed with engagement so they really connect with the issues and each other and as a result with the audience and that's where the ArtsWest production fails. They don't fail completely but enough that what could have been a searing social-political family drama comes across like a tepid sit-com.

In Akhtar's play, we meet Zarina (Monika Jolly), a headstrong young Pakistani-American woman trying to overcome her latest bout of writer's block all the while dealing with her father Afzal (Abhijeet Rane) and her sister Mahwish (Haley Alaji) who've colluded in order to find her a nice man. Their plan actually bears fruit when she meets Eli (Andre Nelson), a young convert who not only sweeps her off her feet but also helps her overcome her block. But just as things look bright Zarina finishes her controversial novel about women and Islam and it threatens to tear her family apart.

Director Samip Raval, who turned in the incredible "Guards at the Taj" last year, keeps the pace moving along nicely. The dialog clips along as does the story. But he could have spent more time getting the performers to connect with each other, and that's where they lost me. It's all well and good to have actors saying the most beautiful lines in the world but if they're not listening to each other and connecting then what's the point?

Rane and Alaji do the best at connecting and keep their characters lively and complex. You could tell Rane's father-figure deeply cared for his daughters no matter what but still held true to his beliefs. And Alaji truly sold a young woman torn between her beliefs and modern sensibilities. But it was Jolly and Nelson who had to carry the majority of the piece and I just didn't latch on to either of them as they didn't seem to latch on to each other. Their line delivery was stiff and presentational with no levels or variance of emotion or inflection and not once did I believe that these two were in any kind of relationship with each other. There was no chemistry or spark between them at all. And for a play that hinges on relationships, having an unbelievable one is the kiss of death.

As much as I've enjoyed Akhtar's other plays I've come to realize that my enjoyment truly depends on the honesty and commitment of the performances and here I just was not feeling that honesty as much as I felt I was watching a performance. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give ArtsWest and Pratidhwani's "The Who and the What" an unconvinced MEH-. Meaningful plays are one thing, but without meaningful performances as well the meaning is lost.

"The Who and the What" from ArtsWest and Pratidhwani performs at ArtsWest through October 1st. For tickets or information visit them online at

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