SELLING KABUL – Williamstown Theatre Festival
The pounding flight of helicopter overhead signals danger in the very opening minutes of “Selling Kabul”, a tense, captivating thriller drama set in the Afghan capital in 2013 just after a drawdown of American forces. Hidden in the apartment below, Taroon (Babak Tafti) a former interpreter for American military awaits nervously for a message from his US contact and for news about his wife in labor. The Taliban have been searching for him and harassing his wife whom he hasn’t seen in months. He’s been concealed by his sister, the childless Aifya (Marjan Neshat) and brother in-law Jawid (Omid Abtahi). The escape Afiya and Jawid have planned for Taroon, his wife and newborn gets jeopardized starting with a suspicious visit by Aifya’s apartment neighbor, Leyla, a new mother with a five-month child.
Playwright Sylvia Khoury skillfully weaves a complicated tale of what happens among the four principals in an economically constructed 70 minutes. With equally skillful direction of Tyne Rafaeli, the impeccably paced, first 45 minutes escalate in tension; there’s a palpable feeling something bad is going to happen. Besides the narrative suspense, Khoury fully develops her characters, each of whose motivations conflicts with the others. Afiya, dutiful sister to Taroon, has tested the limits of her husband Jawid, who has maintained relations with Taliban to protect his wife. Leyla’s new motherhood heightens Afiya’s disappointment in not being able to have a child of her own. What happens among the four tests the boundaries of truth and loyalty. Afiya’s moral choice is painful. Human bonds get stretched in the face of survival.
The ensemble of the actors is excellent, but Ms Neshat is superb in not only carrying Afiya’s emotional burden but also the play’s narrative thrust. The second half of the play is not as seamless as the first as events spin out of control, and the conclusion of the play, though perfectly logical, seems sentimentalized more than it need be. No matter. “Selling Kabul” engaged me more than most new plays: I cared what happened to all the characters. All the while, I couldn’t stop thinking how we Americans take for granted a way of life that people elsewhere are willing to risk lives for. “Selling Kabul”, without polemic, in simple human terms, reminds how privileged and blessed we are to be Americans.