Blood and Gifts
James Warnock (Kelly AuCoin) is a spy, though more like the kind of spy in John le Carré novels than in Ian Fleming's James Bond series. A bright but otherwise ordinary American, Warnock has been tasked with being CIA station chief in Pakistan during the time of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Pakistan military, in the form of Colonel Afridi (Amir Arison), is being less than fully cooperative, but nevertheless provides Warnock with enough background to identify Abdullah Kahn (Demosthenes Chrysan) as a potential intelligence source among the warlords who are fighting the Soviet army.
Of course, Warnock is far from anonymous. His KGB counterpart in Pakistan, Dmitri Gromov (Triney Sandoval), goes so far as to call him out upon arrival just to let him know that he has no real cover as a spy. MI6 agent Walter Barnes (Donald Sage MacKay) comes calling as well, mostly to complain about lack of real cooperation in intelligence between the U. S. and Britain.
Warnock is far from the stereotype of the Ugly American. He is smooth and reassuring, and he makes a concerted effort to learn both the language and the culture of his informants. He is particularly sensitive to the cultural-laden rules of gift giving, and while he readily agrees to provide a variety of kinds of support (monetary and otherwise) in exchange for information, he has to be careful not to promise gifts that he cannot deliver.
The hell of war ultimately overwhelms, and all of the characters are caught in its grip, affecting both their relationships with each other, and the personal and professional relationships in their home countries.
Mr. Rogers has chosen to dramatize an era that may not be familiar to many Americans. The Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and were forced to go home with their tails between their legs just as glasnost and perestroika were breaking out. Americans may have been vaguely aware of the CIA's efforts during this era, but few would have guessed the extent to which U. S. intelligence was helping to drive the resistance (seeing the film Charlie Wilson's War can provide some context). The play walks a steady line of not taking sides, but it also doesn't provide audiences with much background.
Too, the almost three-hour dramatic arc of the play tends to focus on what conflict it can find without staging actual battle scenes. So, there's lots of yelling as characters discuss the situation and how to handle not only the policy issues but also the relational ones. Yelling may be dramatic, but it can also be tiresome, and such is true in this case. Still, one will emerge with a clearer understanding as to why Osama bin Laden was found living right under the noses of the military well inside the Pakistan border, among other contemporary matters.
Using the large stage of the Mandell Weiss Forum as a palette, director Lucie Tiberghien paints a bleak picture of never-ending conflict. Her large cast, including several UCSD master of fine arts students, responds with vivid portrayals. Mr. AuCoin superbly embodies conflicted American attitudes that have characterized our country's involvement in the region, and he is matched in perspicacity by Mr. Sandoval, Mr. MacKay, and especially Mr. Chrysan. If the history itself is dry and sometimes confusing, the relationships developed among these actors will have you believing despite any confusion.
The production is helped by the straightforward scenic, costume, and lighting designs of Kris Stone, Charlotte Devaux Shields and Matt Richards. Shahrokh Yadegari's sound design was compromised by equipment malfunction at the performance I saw, but what I heard of it brought the war uncomfortably close.
History and spy buffs will be sitting on the edges of their seats through much of Blood and Gifts. The rest of us may be sitting back a little but with patience will find much to savor.
Performances through July 8, 2012; Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sun at 7:00 pm. Matinees: Saturday/Sunday at 2:00 pm; Also Monday, July 2 at 7:30 pm. (no performance on Wednesday, July 4), at the Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037. Tickets ($26 - $51) may be purchased by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010 or by visiting the theatre's website at www.lajollaplayhouse.org/blood-and-gifts.
La Jolla Playhouse presents Blood and Gifts, by J. T. Rogers. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien, with Scenic Design: Kris Stone, Costume Design: Charlotte Devaux Shields, Lighting Design: Matt Richards, Sound Design: Shahrokh Yadegari, and Dramaturg: Shirley Fishman.
The cast includes Amir Arison as Colonel Afridi, Kelly AuCoin as James Warnock, Benjamin Burdick as Speechwriter, Demosthenes Chrysan as Abdullah Kahn, Donald Sage MacKay as Walter Barnes, Daniel Pearce as Simon Craig, Triney Sandoval as Dmitri Gromov, Babak Tafti as Saeed, Geoffrey Wade as Senator Birch, Touheed Yousef as Mujahid, and UCSD M.F.A. students: Ngozi Anyanwu, Danvir Singh Grewal, Sarah Halford, Regan Linton, Scott Patteson and Maurice Williams.