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Selling Kabul
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's reviews of Pippin, Cabaret and The Scottsboro Boys

Babak Tafti
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Williamstown Theatre Festival, in association with Playwrights Horizons, is presenting the world premiere production of Selling Kabul through July 20th. Set in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013, Sylvia Khoury's script addresses the plight of Taroon, a young man who recently assisted the United States Army when he was an interpreter. Now, he fears for his life that the Taliban will discover that he has not left this city.

Taroon (Babak Tafti) is more or less encased within his sister's apartment. He sits on a couch while sibling Afiya (Marjan Neshat) nervously watches the door to the house. She is hesitant to release any of the three locks, fearing an intrusion of someone who might kill them both. When he hears a noise, Taroon scrambles into a closet and barricades himself behind bins and clothing. Otherwise, he sits on a large cushion and tinkers with what appears to be a broken router. He needs email since his wife is about to give birth and he is missing the labor and delivery. Taroon is bereft.

Afiya has issues of her own since it is clear that she desperately wants to have a baby and is unable to conceive. This young, tension-ridden woman might turn to in vitro fertilization if that is financially feasible.

Taroon is aware that the Taliban is pursuing him and he sees that neither the army nor the United States government is proactively trying to safeguard him. This all occurs as the U.S. military is departing the country. Taroon's sister and her husband Jawid (Omid Abtahi) are brave and caring. Jawid is sewing uniforms for the Afghanistan army with the hope that deal-making may yield a positive outcome. Taroon's sister and brother-in-law very much shield him. A neighbor named Leyla (May Calamawy) has troubles as well, and her presence lends another layer of complexity to Khoury's plotting.

For much of the first 60 of the 80 minutes of this production, carefully directed by Tyne Rafaeli, near silence dominates the stage as the actors speak in clipped phrases. The back-and-forth is sometimes devoid of emotion. That tone might emulate actual life but, within the genre of live theater, it sometimes is too devoid of vocal range. One feels simmering tension but, for the most part during much of the one hour plus, it is not shown. Perhaps the playwright and director seek to demonstrate an immunity (after experiencing the violence of gun warfare if not bombing) people of Kabul have attained.

Sylvia Khoury presents a perceptive, well-articulated commentary drawing a keen focus upon the effects of war in Kabul. Selling Kabul is controlled drama which gradually, perhaps too slowly, builds to a symbolic boil near the end of the performance. There is much implied intensity. To be fair, something is evolving between two if not three of the characters. Even so, pushing the pace after the first 10 or 15 minutes would enliven and actualize more.

Babak Tafti's most disciplined performance as Taroon is exceptional. The character eventually responds with increasing feeling. Facial expressions evoke the stress and strain. Marjan Neshat's Afiya is steadfastly determined much of the time. Her first priority is to make certain that her brother does not perish. She is driven with certitude; she will not fail. Her potent defense system holds firm until Khoury, very late, complicates the story.

Selling Kabul is significant and consequential. American troops have not fully departed Afghanistan. The play is in full production for the first time and this might be a likely moment for this talented writer (who is also in medical school) to provide a small charge of high energy dialogue during its initial portion.

Selling Kabul, through July 20, 2019, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, 1000 Main St., Williamstown MA. For tickets, call 413-458-3253 or visit