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Home / Articles / Arts / Theater /  ‘The Who & The What’ deconstructs and delights
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Wednesday, Feb 26, 2014

‘The Who & The What’ deconstructs and delights

La Jolla Playhouse production tops our coverage of local plays

By David L. Coddon
theater Meera Rohit Kumbhani (left) and Monika Jolly
- Photo by Kevin Berne

Swirling within the emotional confines of a Pakistani family living in Atlanta are questions of faith, identity and love. They are profound, life-changing questions for father Afzal and his daughters, Mahwish and Zarina, and for Zarina’s husband, Muslim convert Eli. Not the least of these questions is informed by the words of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida: “The history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what.”

In Pulitzer Prize winner (for his first play, Disgraced) Ayad Akhtar’s The Who & The What, 32-year-old writer Zarina is fiercely dedicated to finding answers and spreading the truth—about the Prophet, about the women of Islam, about love. Her quest and the impact it has on those she cares about is an exceptionally beautiful one.

The Who & The What began in development as part of La Jolla Playhouse’s inaugural DNA New Works Series last year. Now it’s making its world premiere in the Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre under the helm of director Kimberly Senior. Her cast of four is first-rate: Kai Lennox as Eli, a man of generous spirit who’s torn between his newly adopted religion and the book his wife writes that deconstructs it; Bernard White as Afzal, a man full of life and love for his daughters, but bound to deep-seated religious and cultural tenets; Meera Rohit Kumbhani as younger sister Mahwish, coping with personal conflicts of her own; and Monika Jolly as Zarina, delivering a performance that in its unflinching resolve and complex sensitivity makes The Who & The What function so well on both an emotional and cerebral level.

Senior’s direction is nimble and ideally in tune with the rhythm of playwright Akhtar’s words. The play’s individual confrontations are rife with passion but never regress into shouting matches; nor do they overwhelm the love extant between sisters, between Zarina and Eli or between Zarina and her father. These personal relationships, forged in adversity as well as happy discovery, are as vital to The Who & The What as are its universal inquiries.

May all new works nurtured in La Jolla Playhouse’s DNA series come to such satisfying fruition.

The Who & The What runs through March 9.

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Edgar & Annabel and Far Away: Ion Theatre is producing a double bill of short plays each night through March 29: Edgar & Annabel, a paranoid thriller about a couple of spies, and Far Away, a dystopian, wartime drama set in factory where hats are made for grim purposes. Opens in previews on March 1 at BLK BOX Theatre in Hillcrest.

Pal Joey: A musical about a scheming son-and-dance man who begins an affair with a wealthy woman in order to realize his dreams of owning a nightclub. Opens Feb. 28 at SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre.

Now playing

She Stoops to Conquer: In a play first performed in 1773, a young, upper-crust woman poses as a maid to make it easier for her shy suitor to woo her. Through March 1 at UCSD’s Mandell Weiss Theatre in La Jolla.

Circle Mirror Transformation: The San Diego premiere of a comedy about a group of Vermonters who enroll in a summer theater class. In the process these strangers get to know one another. Through March 2 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad.

Crumbs from the Table of Joy: It’s 1950 in Brooklyn, and a grieving black widower has found puritanical religion, uprooted his teenage daughters from Florida and married a white German. Through March 2 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.

DNA New Work Series: La Jolla Playhouse gives the public a chance to watch new plays being developed and rehearsed in a series of workshops and staged readings. Through March 2. Get the schedule and all the details at

The Foreigner: A comedy about a sad Brit, a guest at a Georgia fishing lodge, who pretends to speak no English so he doesn’t have to talk to anyone and ends up having to save the lodge from the Ku Klux Klan. Through March 2 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.

Blithe Spirit: The ghost of a writer’s ex-wife is summoned during a séance and ends up accidentally killing the guy’s current wife, whose ghost then returns for revenge. Presented by Moonlight Stage Productions, it runs through March 9 at Avo Playhouse in Vista.

The Who & The What: An author of a book about women and Islam is at serious odds with her traditional Muslim father and her sister. Through March 9 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Detroit: This Pulitzer Prize finalist has a suburban couple hosting a backyard barbecue for their new neighbors. Things go spectacularly awry. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through March 16 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown.

The Gin Game: Two nursing-home residents engage in psychological warfare as they battle in games of gin rummy. Presented by Talent to aMuse, it runs through March 16 at 10th Avenue Theatre in East Village.

The School for Lies: A period (17th century) adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope tells the story of a surly French hater who falls for an acid-tongued young woman. Through March 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.

The Winter’s Tale: A king goes kooky with jealousy, suspecting that his pregnant wife has had an affair with his good friend, and orders that his newborn baby girl be abandoned in a faraway location. Through March 16 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.

Boys and Girls: West Coast premiere of a play that tracks a couple of years in the lives of two pairs of people who grapple with their relationships and the prospects of same-sex parenthood. Through March 23 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.

The 39 Steps: This is a return engagement of a comedic, four-actor stage version of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, as if performed by Monty Python, with lots of allusions to other Hitchcock classics. Presented by Lamb’s Players Theatre, it’s ongoing at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown.

Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill.