Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lincoln Center: Blood and Gifts

Bernard White as Abdullah Khan in Blood and Gifts.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Blood and Gifts by J.T. Rogers, now being staged at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is the first play we’ve seen since returning home from Africa and it was terrific.  If there are a lot more shows like this in town right now, we might even become more reluctant to travel out of New York.  Indeed, I usually attempt not to review plays before their official openings but I thought that Blood and Gifts was so good that I’m making an exception in this case.  Opening night is not until November 21st but I just wouldn’t want you to miss it.

Set in 1981-91, the play tells the story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which culminated in the Russians being forced out of the country by the mujahideen, Afghanistan’s poorly armed but determined resistance fighters.  The play deals with the convoluted relationships that existed throughout the period between the US intelligence community and its counterparts in Britain (MI6) and the Soviet Union (the KGB), as well as with the relationships between the CIA and the US Senate, the United States and the mujahideen, America and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on and on.  It is a tale of of international espionage, diplomacy and foreign policy run amok, of promises and lies, assurances and betrayals, crosses and double crosses, and Rogers has told it brilliantly.

On another level, of course, the play can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening in Afghanistan today, with some of the principal actors having assumed slightly altered roles.  Is the US now playing the role that was so disastrously played by the Soviet Union twenty years ago while the Russians have left the stage entirely (although Pakistan is still being Pakistan, Great Britain still Great Britain, and Afghanistan still Afghanistan)?  Has America learned nothing from its past mistakes in Iran and Vietnam so that it is now doomed to repeat them?  Whether you are a mainstream Republican who supported George Bush’s initial decision to invade Afghanistan in the wake of Al Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9/11, or a Democrat who now supports Barack Obama’s “surge,” or a libertarian who agrees with Ron Paul that we never should have gotten into Afghanistan in the first place and that we now should just get out - wherever you might position yourself along the political spectrum - it would be worth your while to see this play if only to enable you to see things in better perspective.  And it should go without saying that for our elected representatives, this play should be required viewing.

Moreover, on yet another level (and perhaps this is the most important of all), this is a story of human relationships, of husbands and wives, parents and children, and especially of fathers and sons and how man’s evolutionary imperative to carry on his line may trump all other considerations.  Indeed, I believe that the “Gifts” of the title does not refer to the military, political or financial aid given to the Afghans by the United States, Great Britain, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia but rather to the players’ children and particularly to their sons as being “gifts from God.”  It is no coincidence, I think, that during the course of the play, Judy, the wife of James Warnock, the CIA station chief in Pakistan, is pregnant with their first child; that Gemma, the wife of Simon Craig, Warnock’s British counterpart, is pregnant as well; and that the wife of Dmitri Gromov, Warnock’s Russian counterpart, while not pregnant, is having her hands full raising the Gromov’s rebellious daughter Masha on her own in Dmitri’s absence.  And it is not until the play’s very climax that we learn of the son of Abdullah Khan, the mujahideen leader, and suddenly the entire play takes on new meaning.

Rogers, as I already have noted, has written a terrific play.  But the play’s success is not just due to him.  It is also a credit to its director, Bartlett Sher, who has maintained the play’s momentum through an immense number of scene changes from Washington, DC to Islamabad to the mountains of Afghanistan, without missing a beat.  And, of course, to the play’s superb cast led by Jeremy Davidson as James Warnock, the CIA agent who must negotiate the delicate and dangerous lines between his British, Soviet and Pakistani counterparts, America’s own political leadership, and the Afghan mujahideen, while battling his own demons; Michael Aronov as Dmitri Gromov, Warnock’s Russian nemesis in Pakistan, whose personal life also ends up impinging on his political persona; Jefferson Mays as Simon Craig, Britain’s MI6 agent in Pakistan (and a Jew to boot!) who comes closest to stealing the show; Gabriel Ruiz as Colonel Afridi, the head of Pakistan intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad (who has his own agenda); and Bernard White as Abdullah Khan, the Afghan leader who has secrets of his own.  Kudos to them all.


  1. The cast was amazing! Brilliant direction and writing. What about Saed? He was great as well.