Dramatic works about Afghanistan, such as Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" and the more recent multi-authored bill of plays "The Great Game: Afghanistan" tend toward marathon lengths, as though no account of the country's perennially turbulent history could be dispatched in the standard two hours of stage traffic.
"Blood and Gifts," J.T. Rogers' sharp theatrical survey of America's covert involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war, is economical by comparison, running just a little over 2 1/2 hours. But the work, which is an expanded version of the short play Rogers originally wrote for "The Great Game" cycle, is just as epic.
Now having its West Coast premiere at La Jolla Playhouse after acclaimed productions at the National Theatre in London and Lincoln Center Theater in New York, "Blood and Gifts" maps out the geopolitical terrain on which the Cold War's endgame played out from 1981 to '91.
But context is everything, and Rogers has no choice but to hark back to the British imperialist disasters that contributed to the modern quagmire and to hint at the future perils that have kept Afghanistan, a nation Americans knew precious little about before9/11, at the controversial center of our foreign policy.
I'm sure this description will have the phones at the theater's box office ringing off the hook. Plays about war-torn regions are about as enticing as turnips on the dessert menu. But "Blood and Gifts" presents its historical material in a fleet-footed manner that keeps the scenes compact, flecked with surprising comic notes and full of foreboding.
Rogers, whose play "The Overwhelming" grapples with the Rwandan genocide, doesn't have Shakespeare's gift for identifying human patterns in strife-riddled chronicles. Character isn't his forte, which is why "Blood and Gifts" won't have even a fraction of the longevity of "Henry IV," Shakespeare's pinnacle achievement in the history play genre.
But if Rogers isn't especially adroit at marrying private and public spheres, he is exceptionally adept at dramatizing foreign affairs along astute thematic lines. "Blood and Gifts" is organized around the motif of "blowback," a term I first encountered in reading about the complicated U.S.-Afghanistan relationship. A related idea is the law of unintended consequences, which is always in effect during times of war and which provides Rogers with an ironic thread for a plot revolving around munitions deals, battlefield chaos and all forms of international betrayal.
At the center of Lucie Tiberghien's vigorous production is James Warnock (Kelly AuCoin), a ruggedly soft-spoken CIA operative who comes to Islamabad, Pakistan, on a mission to help the Afghans defeat the Soviet invaders. He promises to deliver arms, but getting them into the right hands isn't going to be easy amid the byzantine tribal conflicts that are being inflamed by neighboring countries with their own interests.
Warnock must rely on his British counterpart, Simon Craig (Daniel Pearce), whose expertise in the region is offset by a drinking problem and a backlog of professional rage, and Col. Afridi (Amir Arison) of the Pakistan military intelligence, who is demanding that they supply mujahedin fighters. Keeping a close eye on these maneuvers is Dmitri Gromov (Triney Sandoval), a Soviet agent who adopts a friendly bond with Warnock as a fellow married man who has found himself mired in the "savagery" of this Afghan campaign.
For all Warnock's talents (he picks up languages the way teenagers pick up slang), it's not easy doing business with warlords. Abdullah Kahn (Demosthenes Chrysan), his man on the ground, is mired in his own political and cultural struggles. Beyond the Soviet enemy and sectarian tensions, he has to contend with the younger generation's obsession with American pop music. (Dopey lyrics made famous by '80s rock icons are treated as prized poetry in a running gag.)
There aren't any great revelations in "Blood and Gifts." As historical fiction goes, it's fairly straightforward — the facts are mostly well known and the fictional handling is smooth though hardly transcendent. But the play makes a strong case for the inescapability of history and the strategic necessity of examining conflicts from a plurality of ever-shifting perspectives — two areas that have long bedeviled American foreign policy.
The production's clarity and brisk pacing go a long way toward making the subject accessible and compelling to an audience that might be prone to change the channel when the news grows distant, bloody and seemingly insoluble. At moments the theatrical motor revs a bit too loudly, as if in fear of audience members nodding off. When Simon launches into a whiskey-infused harangue about America's arrogant naiveté, you can practically feel the playwright and performer shaking you by the shoulder.
But anchored by a solid and refreshingly unflashy performance by AuCoin and elegantly arrayed on Kris Stone's clean-lined set, the production dramatically synthesizes what we shouldn't be allowed to lose sight of. (Although acting to avoid past mistakes, one of the motivations of Warnock, who is still grieving how the revolution played out in Iran, can lead to another category of error.)
Back in the U.S., a senator (Geoffrey Wade) with a hand on the military purse strings makes the comment that "real people" care about other people's politics only when "other people put a gun to their head." Those words turn out to be tragically prophetic. "Blood and Gifts" artfully exposes this parochial shortsightedness.