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Busy playwright Ayad Akhtar finds his groove

  • Article by: MARK KENNEDY
  • Associated Press
  • June 12, 2014 - 7:20 AM

NEW YORK — In a sun-splashed rehearsal room recently at Lincoln Center, the knives were out for Ayad Akhtar's new play.

Its four-person cast and director were running through "The Who & The What" and it was agonizing, start-and-stop stuff. Virtually every line was picked apart.

The most surprising thing was that the person with the sharpest knife was Akhtar himself, the author of "American Dervish" and the newly crowned Pulitzer Prize drama winner.

An actor stopped a scene to say he thought another character actually wouldn't do something in the script. "We'll see. We could cut it," Akhtar replied, genially.

At another point, the playwright took a line cut from an earlier moment and resurrected it, welding it into another scene. He also sliced four lines from a character, explaining, "We've heard that 400 times already," and later stopped the run-through to admit that the sequence he wrote wasn't working.

"Guys, I'm sorry," he said. "Thank you for rolling with it."

Most playwrights wouldn't be so keen to wield a scalpel to their own work, but Akhtar, one of theater's most vibrant, exciting young writers, is not precious about it.

"I don't experience it in my body until actors are doing it," he says. "Their human flow is something I can only know fully when they start doing it. They give me feedback through the doing. Sometimes they give me feedback from the inside that I can't even know."

Akhtar, a Pakistani-American, has found rich material in the fault lines between East and West and his new play is no exception. "The Who & The What" centers on a Pakistani-American writer whose potentially shocking novel about women and Islam threatens to tear her family apart.

It's a thought-provoking work, one that smashes together references to "Big Love" and David Letterman with quotes from the Prophet Muhammad and academic arguments about gender politics. It comes on the 25th anniversary of death threats made against Salman Rushdie for "The Satanic Verses."

"This play would start riots in some countries even though it's a very loving play ultimately and, in an odd way, very respectful," Akhtar says. "So many Muslims will not agree with what I'm doing and others will."

The play marks the fourth time the playwright has collaborated with director Kimberly Senior, and the pair have become fast friends who now share a secret language and push each other.

"Both of us have this tremendous fear of making boring theater," Senior says. "Every decision we're making is about keeping tension alive and keeping the action of the play moving forward."

Akhtar, 43, is these days like his plays — moving ever forward. In addition to "The Who & The What," which opens this month at Lincoln Center Theater, he's reworking his play "The Invisible Hand" for the New York Theater Workshop this fall, which is when his play "Disgraced" hits Broadway. This winter, he's due in Berlin to finish writing another book. Oh, and there's a play about Wall Street he's just finished.

"I'm very monastic in a way. I feel very, very responsible to this," he says. "I waited so long to connect to myself as a writer that I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing anyway."

A graduate of Brown and Columbia universities with degrees in theater and film, Akhtar is the son of doctors who grew up outside Milwaukee. Drama and friction were part of his everyday life.

"I grew up in a Punjabi house. Everyone's yelling at each other all the time," he says, laughing. "It's like the southern Italians of north India."

His nonstop output is the product of a profound moment about eight years ago when he was forced to re-examine his identity, a move triggered by the aftereffects of 9/11. Up until then, he'd been trying to remake himself, like all Americans, by avoiding looking back.

"I was myself psychologically not at home with my own identity," he says. "It became increasingly clear to me that there was a question of 'Why am I trying to do this? What am I ashamed of? What do I want to be?'"

Soon ideas began pouring out of him — plays, books, screenplays. "Bam! Like that," he says. "It's been eight years. I'm only halfway through all the ideas that came up in a very short period of time."

Then he smiles. "I understand what I'm doing now."

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