Hatef**k play review – carnal desire and Muslim implosion

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Sendhil Ramamurthy and Kavi Ladnier in the play ‘Hatef**k, written’ by Rehana Lew Mirza, and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, at the WP Theater, in New York. Photo courtesy: Joan Marcus.

NEW YORK – Ever wondered how the liberal commentator and political consultant James Carville, and his wife Mary Matalin, an equally famous conservative commentator, have managed to stay married, without getting into fisticuffs on a daily basis? Especially in the politically turbulent times of the Trump era, when bipartisan camaraderie is at perpetual low tide.

In their book, ‘Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home, Carville and Matalin delve into myriad fights they have gotten into, including during the onset of the Iraq War, and its aftermath.

“For a long time, it was number one or number two (in their fight list), but then it became a case of either shut up or move out,” Matalin explained.

Neither moved out.

Both have been married now to each other for more than 25 years. Continue to endure respective political viewpoints; abrasive, offensive and preposterous though it may be, most times.

‘Hatef**k’, a play by Rehana Lew Mirza, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, (in previews now), which opens on March 13, at WP Theater, in New York City, examines a similar predicament of clash of beliefs and viewpoints, albeit one involving two urban Muslim individuals, who are stereotypical opposites, but sexually attracted to each other. The formula is the same as the Carville-Matalin script: opposites attract, at the risk of implosion.

The 90-minute play, with no intermission, features only two characters on stage, Layla Mahdi, a university professor of literature (played by Indian American actress Kavi Ladnier), and Imran Siddiqui, a best-selling novelist (played by Indian American actor Sendhil Ramamurthy).

At the core of the smartly, and wittily written play (at times too suave and fixated with word play to the detriment of character and relationship building), is the consummate art of peddling of popular notion and stereotype literature to the masses. The idea of being perceived shallow is tucked away, but hovers about.

This commodification of literature, of selling a negative image of Muslims as terrorists and vile human beings in fiction – which is Imran’s forte and his key to financial success, is what riles Layla, and she is resentful about.

Sendhil Ramamurthy and Kavi Ladnier in the play ‘Hatef**k, written’ by Rehana Lew Mirza, and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, at the WP Theater, in New York. Photo courtesy: Joan Marcus.

The two meet at a party hosted by Imran at his house, and their sharp, confrontational word play and double entendre soon ends up in heated verbal exchanges, and sexual arousal.

What follows thereafter is a taut and tart relationship fraught with pure physical desire vs deprecation. Cudgels are taken up for unperceived morals, and defense lowered for higher causes of others.

At one point, Imran touts his capabilities to reap the financial rewards of writing and subsequent fame in the Salman Rushdie mold, without getting into the same controversies as the latter. Layla in turn talks of what ‘jihad’ is all about, and why society has a fixated viewpoint of Muslims, in America. She blames Imran partly for their discrimination.

Imran’s vulnerability at times is evident from his insistence on his fiction being included in the syllabus Layla is teaching to her undergrads, but he smirks at the possibility of that happening too.

In Imran’s world, he’s not responsible for what he writes, only what he reaps from it. Layla is clear, on the other hand, that it’s high time Imran took responsibility for his own work, and repent for the damage to his community.

According to Layla, more than terrorism emanating from Muslims, the America of today is besieged by racism, and school shootings, by White folks. For her, if Imran were to depict Muslims as normal people, who live in suburbs, kept a nice house, with children and a dog, it would do wonders for the image of the community.

Even as Layla and Imran hurtle into an uneasy relationship which seem doomed from the onset unless there is sufficient give-and-take, like in the Carville-Matalin mode, new opportunities and course of action present themselves to the couple, which takes unexpected turns.

In Hatef**k, Mirza raises the interesting and important question of Muslim identity and stereotype which has been one of the most widely discussed issues since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

In fact, Harvard University’s ‘The Pluralism Project’ had gone into the intricacies of that subject years ago, and declared that it was an issue that was cause for concern even before 9/11.

“American Muslims often ask why a small group of extremists, whose terrorist actions violate the central principles of Islam, should determine the public image of the entire Muslim community. As Edward Said, author of Covering Islam, noted, prejudice against Muslims is ‘the last sanctioned racism’”, the project had then analyzed.

The project pointed out that Muslims in the US experience the impact of stereotypes in various forms, like discrimination in housing and employment; harassment and attacks from strangers on the street; mosques and Islamic centers across the country frequently report vandalism.

In her play, Mirza gives the religious and skin color discrimination a broader brush, with repeated usage of the word ‘Brown’ by both her characters, to try normalize all brown skinned people as in the same boat as the Muslim community, in America.

Both Ramamurthy and Ladnier, with plenty of film and TV credits under their belt, apart from their stage repertoire, give commendable performances, in Hatef**k.  They have worked with each other before, in NBC’s ‘Heroes’.

Sendhil Ramamurthy in the play ‘Hatef**k, written’ by Rehana Lew Mirza, and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, at the WP Theater, in New York. Photo courtesy: Joan Marcus.

Ramamurthy, best known for his lead roles in Tim King’s NBC sci-fi dramas, ‘Heroes’, and ‘Heroes Reborn,’ can currently be seen on the new NBC hit series ‘New Amsterdam’. He was seen in the 2018 film ‘After Everything’, with Marisa Tomei and Joe Keery; Stan Lee’s Sky Television series, ‘Lucky Man,’ opposite James Nesbitt; the USA series ‘Covert Affairs’, a memorable arc as Mindy Kaling’s love interest on the final two seasons of NBC’s ‘The Office’; Bravo’s ‘Odd Mom Out’; in Liz Garcia’s ‘The Lifeguard’, opposite Kristen Bell, and in Gurinder Chadha’s comedy ‘It’s a Wonderful Afterlife.’

Ramamurthy is also currently shooting ‘Magic Hour’ opposite Miriam Shar and directed by Jacqueline Christy. In theater, he starred in Carlo Goldani’s ‘A Servant to Two Masters’ in London’s West End, Tom Stoppard’s ‘Indian Ink’ at Walkerspace and Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

Kavi Ladnier in the play ‘Hatef**k, written’ by Rehana Lew Mirza, and directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, at the WP Theater, in New York. Photo courtesy: Joan Marcus.

Ladnier, a New Yorker living in Los Angeles, has also had recurring roles on Amazon’s ‘Just Add Magic,’ ABC’s ‘General Hospital’, ‘CSI NY’, ‘Criminal Minds’, ‘CSI Miami’, ‘Law & Order’, ‘Las Vegas’ and ‘Cosby’. She co-produced and starred in the film ‘Boris and the Bomb’, which is premiering this spring. Among other films, she has also starred in the Indian National Award-winning film ‘Janani.’

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