American playwright J.T. Rogers' Blood and Gifts is a real rarity. He takes a subject that seems like the stuff of PBS or dry policy papers Afghanistan in the 1980s and crafts a smart, intellectually stimulating, and just-plain entertaining spy thriller.
Our nominal hero is James Warnock (a sensational Jeremy Davidson), a Graham Greene-style quiet American who arrives in Pakistan in 1981 as the CIA's station chief, charged with secretly arming a secular Pashtun rebel group in its fight with the Soviets occupying Afghanistan. Warnock meets his English and Russian counterparts (Jefferson Mays and Michael Aronov, respectively), and a complicated game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
Warnock is a decent and idealistic man, still smarting from his country's abandonment of Iranian allies during that country's revolution. He means to do good. But in forging ties with the Pashtun rebel leader (Bernard White), he finds himself misleading both his Pakistani allies and senators back in Washington. And he is not the only one dissembling. It seems that just about every figure in this drama has two faces (or possibly more).
Director Bartlett Sher superbly shuffles the many overlapping characters and story lines on the small stage at the Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Characters who are not in the scene are often seated on sideline benches on stage and addressed as if in absentia, the better to draw out all the crosses and double crosses.
Blood and Gifts is a ripping yarn, made richer by the undercurrent of irony concerning our present situation in Afghanistan. The play concludes in 1991 with the apparently triumphant removal of the Soviets, but Rogers makes clear how the U.S. inadvertently created a set of new, potentially deadlier power players: Islamic militants armed with Western weaponry. For well-meaning but ultimately naive Americans, even victory can come at a heavy cost. A
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