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Theatre in Review: An Ordinary Muslim (New York Theatre Workshop)

Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranjit Chowdhry, Sanjit De Silva. Photo. Suzi Sadler

There's so much going on in An Ordinary Muslim that it feels less like a play and more like a pilot for a miniseries. This portrait of a Pakistani family struggling to find a meaningful place in British society is crowded with characters, overloaded with plot threads, and burdened with some remarkably stodgy dramaturgy. There's plenty of rich material here, but it wants better sorting out.

The action focuses on Azeem Bhatti and Saima Khan, a thirtysomething married couple, busy professionals living with Azeem's retired parents, Akeel and Malika, a fractious pair whose problems include physical abuse. Dropping in from time to time is Javeria, the family's married daughter, who is locked in perpetual battle with Malika. Azeem and Saima are practicing Muslims -- Azeem has recently given up alcohol -- but a big source of family conflict is Akeel's devotion to the Jamaat, a kind of Muslim religious revival movement. (Like so much in An Ordinary Muslim, it is ill-defined, even with an explanatory program note.) Akeel, who came of age during the partition of India, has never really adapted to life in London, dismaying the others by clinging to the Jamaat, which, at least, offers a link to his past. "The Jamaat loaned us the deposit when we first bought this home," he says, defensively. "This family owes them so much, then, and then they didn't accept a penny in return." "And we were forever in their debt," replies Azeem. "Sounds like the Mafia."

In addition to such internal pressures, the outside world is applying plenty of stress to the Bhatti family -- most of it distressingly predictable. In the first ten minutes, we learn that Azeem is up for a promotion to bank manager; it's in the bag, he says, waiting only for the final signoff, and if you think that's going to happen, you don't attend the theatre much. Saima has started wearing a hijab to work and is upset that her coworkers have suddenly -- to a person, apparently -- begun treating her like an alien. One oddity of An Ordinary Muslim is that so much of its drama happens offstage; Azeem and David, his best work mate, are forever retiring to a pub to hash out office politics, especially Azeem's fraught relationship with his boss, who commits offenses like holding a moment of silence on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. (We also notice when Azeem stops drinking orangeade in favor of a pint or two.) Similarly, Saima issues one report after another about her ill-treatment at work, which leaves her traumatized and exhausted. When she decides to take time off -- assuming they can afford it on the new manager's salary Azeem is expecting to get -- Azeem is caught in a vise: Having blown a crucial job interview, he has quit the bank in a rage and is secretly slinging curry dishes in a dive on the city's far edge. Meanwhile, the more he shuts Saima out, the closer she draws to Hamza, a flirty young imam for whom she has been doing volunteer work.

This central conflict is the most the playwright, Hammaad Chaudry, can handle; even so, it remains an awkward thing, struggling to stand up and roar. The supporting characters are often left dangling and one gets little sense of the family's life. The Bhattis don't attend Hamza's mosque -- indeed, they don't appear to attend services at all, a curious fact in such an observant family. Similarly, if Azeem and Saima are such a traditional couple, one wonders why they don't have children; in any case, the issue never comes up. Chaudry never conveys how Azeem, Saima, Akeel, and Malika manage under one roof; Akeel, in particular, is remarkably fuzzily conceived -- sometimes a cranky old coot in the tradition of stage fathers everywhere and sometimes a monster who slaps his ailing wife and has left his only son emotionally scarred. There are other dead ends: The playwright goes to a lot of trouble to establish the fighting between Malika and Javeria but finds no real dramatic use for it. Hamza, introduced only in Act II, is little more than a plot device, used to drive a wedge between Azeem and Saima. And how many deeply religious imams indulge in a little necking with married women?

Any of these plot lines could have proven fruitful, given some insight and a little breathing room, but they keep crowding each other out. The action is predictable -- except for David, who is exposed as a classic lily-livered liberal, white British society is portrayed as inevitably hostile -- and the dialogue is prosaic, given to speechmaking. When David tells Azeem that their boss should be more "tolerant of your way of life," Azeem snaps, "I don't want to be tolerated. I want to be respected." At another point, he announces, "In this country, a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim. As soon as you become visible as a Muslim, you're fucked." He adds, "Let's start talking about people in this country getting used to my way of living. And it better happen fast. Because people like me are not going anywhere, we're here to stay. ...This beautiful brown Muslim face you see in front of you, this is the face of Britain now."

The best thing about An Ordinary Muslim is the chance to spend time with its talented cast, although Jo Bonney's sluggish direction often leaves them at a disadvantage. Sanjit De Silva's natural charisma and stage presence go a long way toward making one care about Azeem, but, as written, the character is too often the author of his own problems, making him surprisingly easy to dismiss. Purva Bedi's natural intelligence and way with a sharp line are put to good use as Saima. Rita Wolf's Malika may be abused, but she is nobody's victim; she is especially skillful when withering Akeel with one of her sarcastic appraisals. It's certainly not Ranjit Chowdhry's fault if he can't quite bring Akeel into focus. Angel Desai makes the most of her few appearances as Javeria, a weary veteran of family battles.

Bonney has also gotten an unusually awkward set design out of Neil Patel, which uses movable wagons to create the Bhattis' living room, a pub, and a mosque. These take up a minimum of space on the theatre's vast, open, unmasked stage. The surrounding walls are beautifully painted in a pattern suggestive of medieval Muslim art; the upstage wall also features windows in which are placed lamps, electric beer signs, etc. It's fairly evocative, but the actors often seem stranded on little islands for no good reason. (Possibly, the idea is to show how the Bhattis occupy such a small, precarious space in England.) Lap Chi Chu's lighting doesn't do much to suggest the various locations. Rather better are Susan Hilferty's costumes, which range from traditional Muslim wear to smart contemporary work ensembles. Elisheba Ittoop's sound design uses music of varying styles -- among them rock guitars and what sounds like a call to prayer -- to bridge the scenes.

With such timely subject matter, it's easy to understand that New York Theatre Workshop was attracted to this property -- and the company has done fine work with playwrights like Betty Shamieh, Lameece Issaq, and Ayad Akhtar. But this is a seriously undercooked piece that needs considerable rethinking if it is ever to be made to work. It tells too much and shows too little. -- David Barbour

(1 March 2018)

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