by Cathy Hammer
Despite there now being three Muslims serving in the US Congress, sadly still we see very few represented in our local artistic culture. Though no one Muslim character can mirror all of what one of the world’s great religions stands for, the arrival of Rehana Lew Mirza’s Hatef**k—a well-crafted two-hander in any season—is particularly welcome at this time. The two Muslims involved in the charged relationship at its center have wildly different world views. That their religion plays a critical role in forming the gap between them enriches the material.
As the play opens, prize-winning author Imran Siddiqui is holding a house party for a fellow writer at the request of his agent, Duncan. Among his guests is Layla Mahdi, a professor of literature at nearby Wayne State. Duncan has been coaxing her to add Siddiqui’s writing to her syllabus. From the outset it doesn’t seem very likely Layla will ever be persuaded to do so. She finds Siddiqui’s use of Muslim stereotypes galling. Worse, she feels he is squandering his talent and time in the spotlight by not writing about members of the Muslim community who could use his amplified voice. The moment she finds herself alone with the famed novelist, she begins needling him about what she sees as his obvious shortcomings. Within minutes, she erupts with pent up fury. More accustomed to being fawned over by the white liberal males who make up his fan base than being admonished by a fellow “brown person,” Siddiqui escalates their battle of words. Passions are heightened with every clever turn-of-phrase until the two head for the bedroom to work off the steam.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the relationship that starts with the physical act of the play’s title grows into something far more interesting. Both characters have a well articulated, deeply complicated relationship with Islam that is familiar to anyone raised in any sort of religious household. Playwright Mirza not only explores the range of feelings around being a “good” Muslim in 2019 America, but also issues of race, gender and opportunity. Her dialogue ripples with energy sprinkled with humor and an occasional gut punch. Using her two beautifully defined creations, she can go deep as well as broad, coming to conclusions that are enlightening as well as troubling. Even the unseen Duncan is sharply shaped.
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt has been blessed with a terrific cast as well as script. Though almost all the action takes place in Imran’s living room, there is a sustained energy. Additionally, the couple’s “intimacy” scenes directed by Judi Lewis Ockler, are funny-angry sex done right.
As Layla and Imran, Kavi Ladnier and Sendhil Ramamurthy have excellent chemistry. Ladnier takes a little longer to warm up, possibility because Layla’s opening salvo is quite aggressive and therefore difficult to deliver with any nuance As Layla’s position in the relationship develops, so Ladnier’s performance becomes more assured. Layla is an unapologetic straight-shooter: a pleasure to witness as a character. Ramamurthy fully inhabits Imran with swagger and a pinch of vanity. His Imran is understandably cocky, but also funny and capable of great warmth. Both roles have so many appealing moments, audience loyalty is likely to bounce between the two.
It helps that Siddiqui’s living area, created by scenic designer Anshuman Bhatia, looks like a page out of a CB2 catalogue. It takes a careful man to select such a sleek Scandinavian environment. Accompanying lighting design by Barbara Samuels gives the audience a knowing nudge as it moves from subtle daylight to the intensity of Day-Glo. Costume designer Sarita Fellows does an exemplary job of keeping religious Layla covered with pieces that are chic, flattering, and winkingly easy to remove.
Hatef**k is presented as a collaboration between WP Theater and Colt Coeur. If you have an appreciation for pigtail in inkwell flirtations mixed with mind-opening conversation, you have until the end of the month to catch this enjoyable performance.
Hatef**k. Through March 31 at WP Theater (2162 Broadway, between 76th and 77th Streets). Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission. www.wptheater.org
Photos: Joan Marcus