J.T. Rogers’s Blood and Gifts (Newhouse Theater) is a big, imposing, serious play that attempts to tell the story of how the CIA moved into Afghanistan in the late 1970s, when it was a Soviet Russian quagmire, and how, with a little help from Afghan historical circumstances and a great deal of help from our own ignorance and heedlessness, we managed to turn it, once the Soviets had been driven out, into a nice messy American quagmire, with thoroughly disheartening consequences for ourselves and for most of the rest of the globe.
This bitter story is eminently worth knowing, and one can’t blame Rogers for thinking the theater would be a highly suitable place from which to launch it into Americans’ deeply inattentive minds. I wish I could say that he had wholly succeeded. He tells the political story with care and precision, personalizing it, with all the effectiveness he can muster, by focusing on the tribulations of one James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson), a CIA operative in Islamabad, Pakistan, who evolves, at deadly peril to both men, a lasting friendship with an Afghan resistance leader, Abdullah Khan (Bernard White).
The potential sources of danger that Warnock must dodge, while arming the ragtag Afghan rebel troops, include his Soviet counterpart in Islamabad, Gromov (Michael Aronov), Abdullah’s hotheaded assistant, Saeed (Pej Vahdat), and the bureaucratic doors constantly being slammed in his face—not always for bureaucratic reasons—by such ostensible allies as a Pakistani spy chief (Gabriel Ruiz), Warnock’s colleague from Britain’s MI6 (Jefferson Mays), and even, back in Washington, his own boss (John Procaccino). Getting what he wants on the strategic level, Warnock ultimately finds himself getting exactly what he doesn’t want politically or personally. As Rogers shows us, none of the other participants gets precisely what he wants either. They call it “the great game,” apparently, because in the long run, everybody loses.
The audience, regrettably, loses, too. Fascinating and painfully instructive as Rogers’s lesson in historical statecraft might be, it rarely comes to life as drama, despite his earnest effort to put a human face on both its stratagems and its costs. The scenes contain lively dialogue exchanges, often studded with sharply sardonic comebacks, but, at least in Bartlett Sher’s production, the characters and the action tend to linger on one somber note and one sluggish rhythm throughout, with each scene lumbering to a full stop.
The deeper passions that might motivate a Westerner like Warnock to dive into this mucky confusion on the other side of the world rarely reveal themselves. (The one wisp of motive Rogers gives his hero is a previous job that he messed up elsewhere in the region.) The repeated motifs meant to characterize Warnock and the other foreign agents start to seem like laborious running gags, and Rogers severely hampers his script’s believability by having both the Soviet and British agents turn into drunks who mouth off in public every time he needs to have somebody non-American explicate a political point. When Warnock, near the play’s end, suddenly discovers a truth that has been evident to any reasonably alert audience member for some time, you start to wonder if Rogers might simply be trying to demonstrate that all spies are jerks. Which makes it hard to countenance his asking us to spend two and a half hours among them. Staying home to read a good short history of Afghanistan, if such exists, might be more to the point.
Although the relatively unvaried, stately pace of Sher’s production, acting as a brake on the drama, might be partly responsible for its lack of liftoff, Sher has unquestionably gotten strong performances from all his principals, each firmly rooted but never lacking showiness when fireworks are called for. White, making instantaneous switches between sage-like serenity and warrior fury, is a marvel to watch. Aronov handles the Soviet agent’s mix of rant and humor with aplomb, and nobody goes to pieces onstage more juicily than Mays. Davidson’s solidity, slightly metallic and monochrome, is like a steel girder supporting Rogers’s large, blank-walled structure. I wish, for their sake and their colleagues’, that the edifice itself were more rewarding to visit. But history is as tough on playwrights as it is on empires.