Monday, January 30, 2012

A Spook in Afghanistan: Blood and Gifts

Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Ruiz and Jefferson Mays in Blood and Gifts at Lincoln Center

The compelling Blood and Gifts, by the American playwright J.T. Rogers, focuses on the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States between 1981 and 1991. The protagonist is Jim Warnock, a thirty-something CIA operative based over the border in Pakistan, whose assignment is to supervise the covert arming of Afghan resistance fighters. His official liaison with themujahideen is the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which – for political reasons of their own – has jockeyed successfully for control of the distribution of American aid and has chosen to back the most extreme of the Afghan fighters, the violent right-wing Islamist Hekmatyar. But Warnock reaches out to one of the other commanders, Abdullah Khan, taking clandestine road trips into the mountains where Khan and his men are camped out and funneling weapons his way (as well as boom boxes and rock ‘n’ roll for Khan’s impetuous young second-in-command, Saeed) in exchange for intel.

It’s a dense, savvy play, a hard-boiled political drama with an emotional center: the friendship between Warnock and Khan, whose life Warnock saves by getting him medical assistance after he’s shot and whom Warnock eventually brings to Washington in 1985 (at the top of act two) as a PR ploy to secure Senate support for his cause, i.e., more funds for weaponry. Rogers is appropriately cynical about the political landscape against which the Afghan struggle to oust the Soviets takes place, where you practically need a chart to keep all the agendas of all the constituencies straight. The other main characters are Warnock’s MI6 counterpart, Simon Craig, and his opposite number in the KGB, Dmitri Gromov, both of whom have been in Pakistan considerably longer than he has. The most important supporting characters are Colonel Afridi, the slippery ISI director, and (in the Washington scenes) Warnock’s boss, Walter Barnes, who guarantees him the enhanced support he seeks for Khan only on the condition that Jim, who has finally secured a reassignment to the States, return to Pakistan (where his successor has been a disaster). But Rogers isn’t cynical about Warnock, a decent man whose commitment to his mission is genuine – and who strives to remain loyal to it, to play fair with Abdullah while negotiating Washington politics and trying (and usually failing) to balance a marriage to a woman stateside with whom he wants to start a family. Jim received his political education in Iran, and he’s still bitter about the grim fate of his in-country agents after the CIA pulled out. Rogers manages the tricky feat of making Warnock’s gung-ho dedication sympathetic while pointing out its limitations – the ways in which it makes even this smart, sharp-eyed operative na├»ve. The play’s major strength is that while obviously we’re meant to hear Warnock, Craig and Gromov as spokesmen for their countries’ political positions, it never reduces them; they’re fully drawn characters whose humanity and the wisdom accumulated with whose experience sometimes places them in private conflict with those positions. So the play, which also keeps us in constant touch with the real costs in violence of the Afghan resistance fight, isn’t a docudrama but a tragedy.

Jeremy Davidson (centre). Photo by Sara Krulwich.

Bartlett Sher helmed the excellent production of Blood and Gifts that closed earlier this month at the intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, and featured particularly strong performances by Bernard White as Abdullah and Michael Aronov as Gromov and a wonderful portrayal of Craig by Jefferson Mays. Mays was the sole actor in the skillful ensemble whom a faithful New York theatergoer was sure to recognize (from I Am My Own Wife, Pygmalion opposite Claire Danes, Journey’s End and other shows). Craig has been on this beat a long time: he recognizes all the various sorts of corruption trembling beneath the diplomatic surface. Though he feels simpatico with Warnock, he’s weary of his country’s constantly being in the shadow of the U.S. big guns – and of the way Afridi (Gabriel Ruiz), who understands that it’s the Americans and not the Brits he has to impress, tends to use him as a whipping boy. And his own marriage is faltering under the weight of his extended absences from his wife. Simon’s time in Pakistan has made him thinner rather than thicker skinned; the trajectory of the character is toward a kind of breakdown in the second act. It’s the kind of role the British character actor Michael Hordern used to be so brilliant at in seventies and eighties movies, and Mays does it full justice. The only member of the cast who doesn’t hit the mark is Jeremy Davidson as Warnock. Davidson is perfectly convincing in his recurring role as a CIA handler on the TV series Pan Am but here he’s mannered and stiff and can’t get any of his lines to sound authentic.

As a playwright drawn to layered political settings, Rogers writes with admirable narrative precision and straightforwardness. This is the only one of his handful of plays I’ve seen, but I read The Overwhelming, which is about Rwanda, and though the style is familiar and the script contains many of the same virtues, it’s not as good as Blood and Gifts. This is the kind of bracing political play that doesn’t get written very often; it doesn’t fall into the usual traps (sentimentality at one end of the spectrum, caricature at the other). When you leave the theater, you feel clear-headed.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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