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'The Who & The What' review: Ayad Akhtar's newest play feels less assured

From left, Bernard White and Greg Keller in

From left, Bernard White and Greg Keller in a scene from "The Who & The What" by Pulitzer-winner Ayad Akhtar, at Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater. Credit: Erin Baiano

In 2012, novelist Ayad Akhtar burst into theater to earn a 2013 Pulitzer Prize for "Disgraced," a quick-witted and shattering drama about collisions of belief and ambivalence in diverse, supposedly enlightened, upscale Manhattan.

The play was extended several times as part of the Lincoln Center Theater's tiny but mighty new-play series, the LCT3. Instead of moving intact to Broadway, however, the gem opened in London in a different production. A Broadway run is finally scheduled for the fall, though, alas, no longer starring Aasif Mandvi as the hotshot corporate lawyer unable to untangle from his Middle East roots.

Meanwhile, LCT3 has a new Akhtar work, "The Who & The What," which again expands our theater's lens with an exploration of conflicts among educated Muslim-Americans. The characters are complex and individual and the actors, again directed by Kimberly Senior, are excellent.

But the play, despite having had its world premiere at California's La Jolla Playhouse this year, feels like an earlier work than the mature "Disgraced." The exposition is labored, the conversations more facile and, too often, the humor is attacked with a sitcom rhythm that jars with the seriousness of the situation.

We are with the Atlanta family of Afzal (the exuberant Bernard White), a Pakistan-born widower who built a successful taxi company and raised two daughters while balancing conservative faith and modern independence. The younger (Tala Ashe) cannot marry her Muslim fiance until her older sister Zarina marries.

And Zarina (Nadine Malouf) is in no hurry. A brilliant Harvard graduate, she is struggling to write a book about "gender politics, women and Islam." She wants to portray the Prophet as a real man with sexual feelings that eventually influenced attitudes toward women in the Quran. She does fall in love with an earnest Christian convert (Greg Keller) who runs a mosque and soup kitchen.

The book comes out. Trouble ensues. We see it coming long before the characters do, which, despite their interesting personalities, makes them far less credible people.

WHAT "The Who & The What"

WHERE Clare Tow Theater, Lincoln Center, through July 27

INFO $20; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Less mature follow-up to Pulitzer-winning "Disgraced."

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