Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul,” a 95-minute thriller that opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons, is a play as tautly made as a military bed. You could bounce a quarter off it — or given its provenance, a five-afghani coin — and then throw yourself down to recover your nerves, which the drama will have absolutely mangled.
The time is 2013, 12 years after the beginning of America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, eight years before its unceremonious close and a moment in which the United States has radically reduced its troop presence. The setting, by Arnulfo Maldonado, is the nice enough Kabul apartment where Afiya (Marjan Neshat) lives with her husband, Jawid (Mattico David), a tailor and storekeeper. For months they have shared the apartment with a third roommate, Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Afiya’s brother, who spends many of his waking hours in the living room closet.
At some point in the past, Taroon worked as a translator for the American forces, which has made him a target of the Taliban. Separated from his pregnant wife, he passes his days surreptitiously watching television and checking the status of his special immigrant visa — when the Wi-Fi works, anyway. As the play begins, Taroon’s wife is in labor and he must weigh the risk of seeing her.
As directed by Tyne Rafaeli, “Selling Kabul” has elements of a Greek tragedy and an espionage thriller. As a suspense story that unrolls in real time, it also suggests stage chillers like “Rope.” Khoury has built her play like a puzzle box. Every detail of the wordless opening moments, even the offstage noises — a baby crying, an engine revving — will reverberate later on. (This is the rare play in which the sound design, by Lee Kinney, is absolutely crucial to the story.) Pay particular attention to the opening conversation between Afiya and Taroon, a tangle of truth and lies in which each word matters.
A structural marvel, “Selling Kabul” can sometimes sound a little hollow at its core. Khoury sketches personalities for the characters — rounded out by Francis Benhamou as Leyla, a chatterbox neighbor — quickly and deftly. We immediately understand Taroon’s impetuousness, Jawid’s equivocation, Leyla’s bright anguish, Afiya’s fretful good sense. (Afiya is the play’s moral center; Neshat is its standout.) But these people mainly serve as devices to urge the drama toward crisis and their speech can seem stilted, as when Taroon reacts to the birth of his son: “He’ll think me a coward. Too scared to show my face in the light of day.”
This would matter less in another play, located in an environment more familiar to American audiences, or if we had more plays, particularly plays by writers of Middle Eastern descent, set in this region. But we don’t have many. In terms of what has played in New York, only “Homebody/Kabul,” “Blood and Gifts” and “The Great Game: Afghanistan” come to mind, works by white British and American writers. At its best, theater can bring the faraway very close, personalize the abstract.
Acknowledging that too few of us Stateside will ever understand the civilian toll of conflicts like those in Afghanistan, I wish Khoury, a playwright of French and Lebanese descent, and Rafaeli had done more to make these characters feel fully human and not just wheels in a beautiful machine. Or maybe this is simply my own regret talking — my memory of seeing the images of the chaos at Kabul airport during America’s botched August exit and realizing that I should have been paying a lot more attention. But that’s the thing about a forever war waged a world away: I didn’t have to. It’s unfair to want “Selling Kabul” to have made me.
So enjoy the play instead as a nimble entertainment and a first-rate workout for your sympathetic nervous system — if I still bit my nails I would have no nails left now. And appreciate, too, that while “Selling Kabul” could have ended tragically, it instead offers some morsel of hope to all of its characters, even if it perverts reason to keep that hope alive. (Honestly, there are a few other logical discrepancies, as when fastidious characters suddenly leave the door open. But when you’re tempted to yell, “For the love of all that’s holy, lock the door!” at the stage, clearly a play has got you.)
After the lights come back on, you will find an insert in your program with information about the International Refugee Assistance Project, a charity that offers legal aid to people in Taroon’s situation, a way to make that hope more real. Maybe that’s a test of a play, not how well it works within a theater’s narrow walls, but how much it makes you want to act beyond them.
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