Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
February 28, 2014
Now on local stages: a world premiere by a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the San Diego premiere of an adaptation by a man listed among the “100 smartest New Yorkers.” Actually, they’re both pretty smart guys, but their plays couldn’t be more different. You might say, one is deep and thought-provoking; the other is deeply shallow and supremely silly, by design.
Ayad Akhtar has the heart and soul of a poet. He also has the life experiences of a Muslim American. And in his writings, he’s something of a provocateur. He speaks in a voice that’s too rarely heard, and he boldly confronts inflammatory issues: Muslims vs. Christians and Jews, tradition vs. modernity. “The Who and The What,” his new, intimate-but-expansive family drama, focuses on love, cultural expectations and inviolable mores.
Zarina is a feminist in a conservative Pakistani family. She’s working on a novel of ‘gender politics,’ specifically, women and Islam, women and the veil. She hasn’t got time for marriage, though her tradition-bound father won’t allow her younger sister to wed until Zarina does. He put an end to Zarina’s earlier relationship; now he’s searching for a more suitable mate, by posing as his daughter on a Muslim dating site. And he comes up with a pretty good catch: Eli is a white convert to Islam, who runs a mosque cum soup kitchen. Conflict ensues in all directions, often in the name of love. Only the last-minute button is troubling; motherhood is offered as a pat solution to all ills, just like it was in Wendy Wasserstein’s “Heidi Chronicles.” More than her father can, this turn of events seems to put an end to – or at least put on long hiatus – Zarina’s potentially incendiary writings.
The La Jolla Playhouse production is superb, set against a backdrop of blue and white Islamic mosaic. Chicago-based director Kimberly Senior, who helmed Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, “Disgraced,” has a flawless feel for his rhythms and wit, and she’s marshaled an outstanding cast to inhabit these intriguing characters. There are layers of meaning and significance. And there’s universality in the particular. The issues raised will resonate with any orthodox religion or immigrant family.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to North Coast Repertory Theatre, and “The School for Lies,” David Ives’ adaptation of Molière’s 1666 comedy, “The Misanthrope.” Ives’ 2011 version, a hopped-up mélange of hip talk and rap, is completely spoken in rhymed couplets. Just as the French farceur was skewering the wealthy hypocrites of his society, this new incarnation, with all its inspired, over-the-top absurdity, comments on the duplicity, lust and greed of our own. Helmed by guest director Andrew Paul, a riotously comical ensemble, outrageously attired and bewigged, impeccably captures the verse, hilarity and heart of this wild and wacky satire.
One play celebrates inanity; the other, profundity. But there are laughs to be had in both.
“The Who and the What ” runs through March 9, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“The School for Lies” continues through March 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
©2014 PAT LAUNER