Review: When Muslim Identity Gets Tangled in the Sheets

Theater

Cupid can be a real jerk. Myth gifts him two sets of arrows, golden ones that spark desire, leaden ones that infuse disgust. Sometimes the twerp looses both at once.

How else to explain why Layla (Kavi Ladnier), a professor of contemporary literature, ends up tangled in the sheets Imran (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a prizewinning novelist whose books she finds “inimical to humanity”? That “inimical to humanity” bit is what she tells him just before she smashes her lips into his. So much for foreplay.

Smart, sexy and not entirely satisfying, Rehana Lew Mirza’s “Hate____,” a production of WP Theater and Colt Coeur, is a political drama gartered and stockinged as a relationship comedy. (If the full title is unpublishable, it’s eminently guessable.) Just beneath the couple’s pheromone-spiked banter lurks a feeling discussion about representation and identity.

Layla, a practicing Muslim, attacks Imran’s best-sellers because she believes they rely on ugly assumptions about Islam and feed white Americans’ fears. They have titles like “The Dishonored,” “The Savage” or “Sacrilege.” (Does this nod to Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” a play some saw as reinforcing anti-Muslim stereotypes?) “Are you a terrorist?” Layla asks him when she corners him at a book party in his luxury apartment. All six of his books feature male Muslim terrorists, so she figures the odds are pretty good.

Is Imran deeply self-loathing or a shrewd judge of what sells? Unclear. Layla wants him to acknowledge his identity and involve himself with the Muslim community. He wants her to admit that it wouldn’t approve of or allow her sexual freedom. She thinks he’s a sellout and a traitor. He thinks she’s a snob and a hypocrite. Could this be love?

Ms. Mirza is a sharp writer and a savvy thinker, quick to suss that sex and politics aren’t unrelated, that our beliefs influence whom we bed and how, that repulsion has its own erotics. But too often Layla and Imran feel like mouthpieces (and fine, yes, eye candy) for the larger arguments.

When the actors really sell the repartee, those mouths can be enough. But at a preview performance, under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s direction, the rhythms were often syncopated, the lines tentative. Ms. Ladnier, with her flirty acerbity, and Mr. Ramamurthy, with his easy physicality and shark’s smile, drip with charisma. (They briefly appeared together on the TV series “Heroes.”)

As the badinage sputters, though, the play wilts, and the objectives Ms. Mirza has given her characters — she wants to reform him, he desperately wants to earn a place on her Wayne State University syllabus — seem less plausible.

In the second half, Ms. Mirza’s attentions shift, maybe unwisely, to a number of subplots, like a plan to publish Layla’s research and a conflict with Imran’s sleazy white agent.

Still, it’s nice to see a play that invites Muslim characters to be just as mouthy and sexy and messy as characters of any other denomination. There are no explosions here — well, unless you count the simultaneous one over the arm of the sofa. During one of their skirmishes, Layla dares Imran to write “about other kinds of Muslims, Muslims like you and me.”

“Sluts are Muslims, too,” she says.

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