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A CurtainUp Review
An Ordinary Muslim

In this country, a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim.— Azeem Bhatti, an aspiring young professionalin Hamaad Chaudry's An Ordinary Muslim

ordinary muslim
The Bhatti family: Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranjit Chowdhry, and Sanjit De Silva (Photo: Suzi Sadler)
An Ordinary Muslim, Hammaad Chaudry's debut as a professional playwright, opens with sprightly dialogue among three South Asian Londoners. It's 2011, the year of political activism known as Arab Spring. Chaudry's Gen X characters are having tea in a comfortable, slightly shabby living room which, as rendered by scenic designer Neil Patel, would be ideal for a multigenerational farce by Alan Ayckbourn.

It's immediately clear from Chaudry's ample exposition that the plot of An Ordinary Muslim is going to be intricate. For a few minutes, though, all signs point to an evening of urbane comedy about a Muslim clan in the UK of today.

The Bhattis are a family from Pakistan who've been in London since the period between 1948 and 1962 when the British Nationality Act permitted citizens of the Commonwealth to immigrate freely to Britain. The father, Akeel (Ranjit Chowdhry), worked many years for a regional bus service, moonlighting in various blue-collar capacities to make ends meet. The mother, Malika (Rita Wolf), has been helpmeet and homemaker, as dictated by the society in which she and Akeel grew up.

The two Bhatti offspring, now grown, are first generation university graduates. Javeria (Angel Desai), a stay-at-home mom, is traditional enough to wear the hijab in public. Azeem (Sanjit De Silva) is on track for promotion to a managerial post in the Clapham branch of a bank. He's married to Saima (Purva Bedi), also a young professional, who may well have more on the ball than her husband. Learning that both Azeem and Saima are anticipating promotions in their jobs, Javeria makes gentle fun of their upwardly mobile ambition, calling them "the power couple of West London."

Midway through the play's initial scene, the tone begins to darken and to do so with a vengeance. Seemingly out of the blue, Azeem picks a fight with Saima over her decision to wear the hijab at work. "In this country," he rants, "a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim. As soon as you become visible, as a Muslim, you're fucked."

The didactic young husband reminds Saima that, with his father retired, the household relies on their joint earnings to make ends meet. He's adamant that the headscarf will “compromise [her] authority” and imperil her advancement.

Chaudry keeps the dark stuff coming. Azeem and Saima aren't the only members of the Bhatti family at odds about religious practice. We learn that, on the previous night, Malika took issue with Akeel's plan to go on a 40-day pilgrimage; and, in the midst of their argument, husband struck wife and she ended up in a hospital emergency room with a cardiac crisis.

The parents' set-to is the reason Javeria has traveled two hundred miles from Manchester, where she lives with husband and children. When Malika joins the younger family members in the living room, her anger and bitterness (plus her cruelty to her daughter) envelope the action like a pall, confirming once and for all that An Ordinary Muslim isn't going to be the comedy it seemed at first.

Chaudry is a dab hand at dialogue; and his narrative ambitions are prodigious. In An Ordinary Muslim, he addresses a host of issues: family dysfunction, generational conflict, ethnic and religious prejudice, and the disillusioning effect of youthful promise thwarted or otherwise unfulfilled.

The play's multiple storylines and multitude of conflicts call to mind Tony Kushner's engrossing but refractory The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (Curtainup review here). As it happens, Kushner was Chaudry's project advisor at Columbia University, where An Ordinary Muslim began as a "thesis" in the MFA program in playwriting.

Because of its scale, the Bhattis' saga might have been developed more effectively as a novel, in which the writer could avoid the severe restrictions of time and scope imposed by theatrical performance. In the script as performed at New York Theatre Workshop, it's hard to determine what the author feels is his most urgent theme. Perhaps it's Azeem's conviction that he's treated as an alien in his own homeland (an aspect of the play that calls to mind the so-called Dreamers of the current political moment in the United States). This comes to center stage in two scenes, set in a pub, in which Azeem bares his soul to David (Andrew Hovelson), a well-meaning white work colleague. David thinks people like the Bhattis should be patient with Britain's pace of change and try harder for integration in Anglo-Saxon culture.

"I didn't get off the boat yesterday," Azeem tells David. "I'm already integrated. . . . My sister now has children who're born here. This country isn't changing, it already has changed. . . . This beautiful brown Muslim face you see in front of you, this is the face of Britain now."

De Silva, a Sri Lankan-American actor who appeared opposite Clare Danes in Sarah Burgess's Dry Powder (review) two years ago at the Public Theater, conveys Azeem's agony with strength and insight. Responding to the crazy-making circumstances that confront his character, De Silva ventures to the brink of hysteria, believably and sympathetically. His is a performance of unusual force that somehow never overpowers the superb ensemble surrounding him.

Director Jo Bonney is in admirable control of this production. Her supervision of Chaudry's sometimes diffuse dramaturgy rescues the play's sundry themes and conflicting narrative directions from devolving into dramatic chaos. Under her assured guidance, the actors deliver characterizations that are distinct, bracing, and clear.

An Ordinary Muslim is a good, if gangly, play. Bonney's direction of a fine cast and the beautifully integrated design by Patel, Lap Chi Chu (lighting), Elisheba Ittoop (sound), and Susan Hilferty (costumes) make this an extraordinary production. What's odd is that, while Patel's flexible set includes moving stage decks that would permit swift transitions from location to location, the many scene changes occur at a glacial pace. Chaudry has been blessed with a staging beyond the wildest dreams of most first-time playwrights in New York. How odd that such sluggish transitions undermine the production's otherwise noteworthy momentum.

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An Ordinary Muslim by Hammaad Chaudry
Directed by Jo Bonney
An Ordinary Muslim by Hammaad Chaudry Directed by Jo Bonney Cast: Purva Bedi (Saima Khan), Angel Desai (Javeria Bhatti-Mirza), Sanjit De Silva (Azeem Bhatti), Andrew Hovelson (David Adkins), Harsh Nayyar (Irman [THE NAME IS IMRAN RATHER THAN IRMAN] Jameel), Sathya Sridharan (Hamza Jameel), [Bernard White is no longer playing Akeel – it's now RANJIT CHOWDHRY] Ranjit Chowdhry (Akeel Bhatti), Rita Wolf (Malika Bhatti).
Scenic design by Neil Patel
Costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu
Sound design by Elisheba Ittoop
Fight direction by Thomas Schall
Dialect Coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser
Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutess with one 15 minutes intermission
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E. 4th St.
From 2/07/18; opening 2/26/18; closing 3/11/18. Performance Schedule: Tue-Wed, Sun, 7pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm; Sat-Sun, 2pm
Reviewed by Charles Wright at 2/25/18 Press Performance

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