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Pulitzer Prize (#110 of 15)

The Who & the What Interview with Ayad Akhtar

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The Who & the What Interview with Ayad Akhtar
The Who & the What Interview with Ayad Akhtar

In the fall of 2012, Lincoln Center theater produced Ayad Akhtar’s first play, Disgraced, a witty and compelling comedy of bad manners dealing with the topical and controversial subject of Muslim identity in this country. In the play, an urbane dinner party, thrown by a successful Pakistani-American lawyer and his Caucasian artist wife at their well-appointed Upper East Side home, breaks down into an unexpectedly brutal examination of the faith and politics of the hosts and their guests. The play, which received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and will be seen again in New York this fall, this time on Broadway, established Akhtar as a new and exciting voice in the American theater. Born in New York City and raised in Wisconsin to Pakistani immigrants, the actor turned playwright gives voice to a community rarely represented on our stages, grappling with the thorny issues facing an immigrant generation caught between 21st-century mores and the conservative traditions of their faith. In a recent conversation, Akhtar talked to me about his current play, The Who & the What, now playing through July 27 at Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater, and the underlying themes and passions in his writing.

How would you describe The Who & the What?

It’s a family story, about two sisters and their father. One of the sisters, Zarina, is writing a book which is a humanizing portrait of the Prophet Muhammad, and her father who’s a believing, practicing Muslim—not particularly rigid, but certainly conservative—doesn’t know that. And over the course of the play he finds out about the book. But it’s also a play about how the image of the prophet figures in the lives of these folks, in the mythological space, notably the life of the lead character, Zarina. The deeper subject matter of the play is the Ummah’s—the Muslim community’s—relationship to the prophet. And the other side of the play is really just an immigrant tale of Afzal, the father, coming to embrace America on one level and, on the other, his continued at-oddness with American life and also with his own daughter’s choices. It’s a very old tale which is told again and again. I’m just telling it in this particular community.

Poster Lab: August: Osage County

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Poster Lab: August: Osage County
Poster Lab: August: Osage County

Since the film is so anticipated as both adaptation and buzzy ensemble piece, the poster for August: Osage County would have been an event no matter what it looked like. Directed by TV vet John Wells, who made his feature film debut with The Company Men, this dark comedy marks the first-ever onscreen pairing of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, who play Violet and Barbara Watson, the mother and daughter who lead the clan in Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale. All who know the play know the importance of the work’s vast cast, and such is the major selling point here.

Stacked high like an actorly steeple are names both established and up-and-coming: Streep, Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, (the great) Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham, and more. It’s a very tempting mix, and despite the overly genial, all’s-well-that-end’s-well nature of the trailer, it helps to know that Letts has penned the screenplay too, and hopefully hasn’t watered his work down to Hollywoodized dysfunction (lord knows no one needs another The Family Stone). Presumably, Letts’s script also holds the promise of avoiding the trap of multi-character dramedies, which serially fail to develop individual personalities amid the crowd. It’s a grating trend that couldn’t be better visualized here, and let’s hope the packed-house symbolism reflects the film’s ability to overcome it.

The Better of What’s Left David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not

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The Better of What’s Left: David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not
The Better of What’s Left: David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not

Now that it’s no longer the next David Foster Wallace book, The Pale King, the unfinished novel that was famously not awarded a Pulitzer in 2012, can settle into a sort of legacy within the author’s career. Published less than three years after Wallace’s death, The Pale King, for all its merits, is a rare glimpse into what it means to be a work in progress in a mind that many readers couldn’t help but idolize, and the timing probably couldn’t have been worse. For years we waited for the author’s next book, only more so after his death, but what we received was a ghost of a story, a reminder equally of Wallace’s tremendous gifts as a writer and the constant challenge of cultivating them over and over again, an artifact both satisfying and incredibly not. Suddenly the intensely weird and almost perfect late-career short stories and the wonder that is Infinite Jest were made to seem that much more worked-on, coming less from the heavens than from spiral notepads not unlike anyone else’s, just when the fervor of Wallace-saint and Wallace-genius had reached its pitch. Reading through the long, dreary hours of tax accounting and made-up IRS administrative history, you could never tell whether the way a certain section was structured pointed to the author’s growing views about the purpose of fiction or if that was just how the ideas happened to occur to him this time. I even found two punctuation errors. In the end it was an appropriate mess for an author who so enjoyed spotting paradoxes in everything he wrote about.