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Blood and Gifts

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jeremy Davidson, Jefferson Mays, and Michael Aronov.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

If you're tired of geopolitical wrangling on the news shows you watch or the websites you read, J.T. Rogers is positing the ideal solution: Go to the theatre! Specifically, the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, where Rogers's play, Blood and Gifts, has just opened. And no, I'm not kidding: Though the show is as serious and in-depth an examination of the flashpoints and ignitions behind one of the most fiery hotbeds of conflict in the Middle East, Afghanistan, as you're likely to find, it's also surprisingly entertaining—and theatre through and through.

If that sounds like it might be a tough trick to pull off your worries are valid but unfounded this time around. Unlike the sleepy historical epic The Great Game: Afghanistan, which premiered Off-Broadway last year (and which this play was originally intended to be part of), Rogers keeps his focus squarely on the violent absurdity that was international brinksmanship during the Cold War. Afghan freedom fighters fascinated by Western music and women set up their own built-in culture clash; and the British, Russian, and American diplomats trying to sort everything out likewise prove comic in their dangerous ineffectuality. There's a lot to laugh at in the way we view, and are viewed by, each other, and Rogers brings out every instance of this he can, and that prevents turgidity from setting in.

This story could be told without laughter, of course, but both you and the story benefit greatly from its ability to leaven the deeper tears that irrigate the saga. It's specifically about American complicity in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the CIA funneled resources (including and especially weapons) to those same Afghans with the help of the Pakistani equivalent of the Secret Service. The play centers on one American operative, Jim Warnock (Jeremy Davidson), as he tries to predict which of the many independent faction leaders is likely to be America's greatest hope for getting a foothold in the region—and against the currently occupying Soviets.

To this end we see how Jim collaborates and colludes with his Russian and British counterparts, respectively Dmitri Gromov (Michael Aronov) and Simon Craig (Jefferson Mays), and secures the friendship of the man he perceives as the most promising Afghan head, Abdullah Khan (Bernard White). But we also see how politics poisons everyone's efforts to do what they think is "right," and how each outward action is supported—if not outright countered—by another that hides an even more disastrous outcome in the shadows. When no one is who he claims to be, how can anyone know whom to trust?

Jeremy Davidson (right) with Bernard White, Andrew Weems, Pej Vahdat, Andres Munar, and J. Paul Nicholas.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

They can't, and that's precisely the point. Rogers argues that politics is not the "art of the possible," but the art of the con: He who gets away with the most wins. And from the representatives of each of the interests on the ground to bureaucrats and politicians back in Washington with their own (only occasionally complementary) agendas, no one is ever on the level, or at least ever on the same level twice. This bestows on the story a bewitching complexity, which is plenty of sly fun to unravel, and cunningly crafted characters, all of whom are fighting even more important and intimate battles on their home fronts. Through it all we see the full scope of how both single souls and crusading collectives alter the course of history for both better and worse.

Blood and Gifts is by necessity somewhat cold—there are too many sweeping themes for individual's concerns to be dealt with in any real way. But that's okay: Unlike with his play about the Rwandan genocide, The Overwhelming, which Roundabout presented in 2007, Rogers finds here the proper balance between big and small ideas so that you never feel one group is supplanting the other. In fact, as the play develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine where self-interests leave off and national interests begin; this is one of the crucial fulcrums of the drama.

The only unsteadiness in this area comes from director Barlett Sher: Though he's largely captured the physical and spiritual emptiness of this all-or-nothing chess playing, planting various characters on benches surrounding the stage tends to confuse the question of what's actually happening and what's only unfolding in someone's mind. Jim doesn't need to actually hold a gun to someone's head for us to know he doesn't like him, for example; nothing about the script makes such moments or motivations unclear. This is just Sher overworking and underthinking, and should be ignored as much as it can be.

That's not doable with anything else about this production, which is suavely designed (Michael Yeargan's set and Donald Holder's lights flip effortlessly between desert and bureaucratic barrenness, and Catherine Zuber's costumes are first-rate rags and business suits) and acted with compelling understatement. Davidson's off-the-cuff, all-business mien provides a fitting contrast to the deceptive warmth of Aronov's Dmitri and Mays's neurotic Simon; they really do all seem like separate sides of a single figure, forced by their societies and governments to play roles that don't inherently suit them. White is alternately ingratiating and sinister as the Khan, and Pej Vahdat charismatic yet appropriately impenetrable as his second in command.

White and Vahdat are particularly successful at keeping you guessing about their characters' loyalties; as soon as you think you have them figured out, some new revelation will change your mind, yet every direction seems equally plausible. That's how it should be, and it's not much of a leap to see that the so-called "good guys" aren't behaving much differently. The give and take between the powers, which leads to situations and misunderstandings that are sometimes eye-rolling and sometimes globally important, might be enough to keep you involved and smiling. But once you realize that so much of this actually happened and had—and continues to have—terrible consequences, the laughing games quickly become a crying shame.

Blood and Gifts
Through January 1
Mitzi E. NewhouseTheatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
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