Off-Broadway Review: “An Ordinary Muslim” at New York Theatre Workshop

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic
  • Outer Critics Circle

“It won’t stay this – go back to Richard, make amends, sort your life out – but things will get better, easier, with time, people such as yourself ‘n your family start integrating more.” – David to Azeem

What does it mean to be an ordinary Muslim? What does it mean to be an ordinary Christian? What does it mean to be an ordinary Hindu? What does it mean to be an ordinary Jew? What does it mean to ask those questions and what might it indicate about the questioner?

Azeem Bhatti (Sanjit De Silva) is a Pakistani Muslim who was born and raised in the United Kingdom and struggles with the racism and xenophobia he experiences from his boss Richard at the bank where he works. Azeem is hoping for a transfer to the Clapham branch where he would be manager. His longtime friend David Adkins (Andrew Hovelson) has gone behind Richard’s back to assist Azeem in getting the transfer, and Azeem, unwilling to ask Richard for the required reference to seal the transfer, needs David to write the reference instead.

 Photo: Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranjit Chowdhry, and Sanjit De Silva in “An Ordinary Muslim.” Credit: Suzi Sadler.

Photo: Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranjit Chowdhry, and Sanjit De Silva in “An Ordinary Muslim.” Credit: Suzi Sadler.

David reminds Azeem that he and Richard were “friends.” Azeem reminds David, they were “not friends, friendly. When he thought I was a secular Muslim. When he saw me sneak out for Friday prayers, saw that Allah and Islam stuff mattered to me, he was not so friendly anymore.” To which David replies, “You hide it pretty well, people assume you’re just an ordinary Muslim not” someone who takes his faith seriously.

Hammaad Chaudry’s new play, “An Ordinary Muslim,” currently running at the New York Theatre Workshop, addresses the difficulties Azeem and his wife Saima (Purva Bedi) experience in West London in 2011 and invites the audience to connect their personal histories to the experiences of Muslims globally who face the increase of nationalism in the countries where they were born or settled as immigrants.

Azeem and Saima – who also faces discrimination at work – live with Azeems’ parents Akeel (Ranjit Chowdhry) and Malika (Rita Wolf) whose dysfunctional relationship exacerbates the difficulties the couple experience in their workplaces. Akeel continues to abuse Malika despite Azeem and his sister Javeria’s (Angel Desai) attempts to intervene. Further complicating their struggles is Saima’s decision to wear her hijab to work, her frequent visits to her mosque, and her growing attachment to Hamza Jameel (Sathya Sridharan) the “son of a preacher man” who currently runs the mosque.

As the distance between Azeem and Saima widens and Azeem’s reluctance to compromise his values strengthens, his life begins to spin out of control. What happens to Azeem, how he reconciles his identity to his “citizenship,” is the captivating and engaging story Mr. Chaudry develops with a commitment to authenticity and believability. Director Jo Bonney gently teases the pathos and ethos of the script and supports the actors’ choices throughout. These extraordinary actors expose the hypocrisy behind demanding Muslim citizens to be “ordinary” and “start integrating.”

AN ORDINARY MUSLIM

The cast for “An Ordinary Muslim” includes Purva Bedi, Ranjit Chowdhry, Angel Desai, Sanjit De Silva, Andrew Hovelson, Harsh Nayyar, Sathya Sridharan, and Rita Wolf.

“An Ordinary Muslim” features scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop, and fight direction by Thomas Schall. Dawn-Elin Fraser serves as dialect coach, with Stage Management by Lori Ann Zepp. Production photos by Suzi Sadler.

 “An Ordinary Muslim” runs at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street) through Sunday March 11, 2018. For more information, including the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, please visit https://www.nytw.org/. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission.