Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company is staging Ayad Akhtar’s THE WHO & THE WHAT after its well-received runs at Lincoln Center three years ago and then estimable regional venues. Akhtar plumbs the American Muslim experience as he did most dramatically in his Pulitzer Prize-winning DISGRACED. Zarina, daughter of a conservative Pakistani-born father and wife of an American-born Islam convert, writes a novel that the father regards as blasphemous, rupturing her dutiful and respectful relationship with him. The play is not as finely constructed as DISCGRACED. The most effective scene doesn’t involve Zarina at all, but rather her husband and father arguing about Zarina’s rights as a woman. The scene that's most memorable - unfortunately, not for its content but the Boston audience reaction to it – is what Akhtar wrote as the dramatic highpoint. In her outburst after her father disowns her, Zarina lets out her sister’s secret - that, to preserve for marriage her “virginity”, she has engaged regularly in only anal sex with her Muslim boyfriend. About a quarter of the audience giggled or even laughed. I don’t blame the actors. The cast of four was solid and the scene, while not the strongest of this particular production, was perfectly executed. As a Manhattan theatre habituee, I could snobbishly assign the curious reaction to Boston parochialism, but, I think, the fact is that a hetero audience - even a liberal one that makes up the Huntington subscriber base - gets nervous, downright uncomfortable, with the topic. THE WHO & THE WHAT is not Akhtar’s best, but it doesn't deserve the inappropriate response I witnessed at the Huntington.
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