A military bed is as tautly constructed as Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul,” a 95-minute drama that premiered at Playwrights Horizons on Monday. In order to recoup your nerves after the drama, you could bounce a quarter off it (or, considering its history, an Afghani five-afghani coin) and then throw yourself down on the floor.
2013 marks 12 years since the start of America’s “long war” in Afghanistan, eight years before its unceremonious conclusion, and a period during which the United States has significantly decreased its force presence in the country. It is set in a pleasant enough Kabul apartment, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, in which Afiya (Marjan Neshat) lives with her husband, Jawid (Mattico David), who works as a tailor and a shopkeeper. Since Afiya’s brother Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez) moved in with them a few months ago, they have had a third roommate, who spends the most of his waking hours in the living room closet.
As a translator for the American troops at some time in the past, Taroon became a target of the Taliban, who sought to eliminate him. In addition to watching television and monitoring the status of his special immigration visa — when the Wi-Fi is functional, that is – he spends his days apart from his pregnant wife. Taroon’s wife is in labour as the play starts, and he must decide whether or not to risk seeing her.
With parts of a Greek tragedy and an espionage thriller, Tyne Rafaeli’s “Selling Kabul” captures the attention of audiences worldwide. “Rope” is a suspense narrative that unfolds in real time, which makes it a good candidate for stage chillers. In the same way that a puzzle box is constructed, Khoury has constructed her performance. In the long run, every aspect of the wordless opening seconds, even offstage sounds such as a baby wailing and an engine revving, will resonate. (This is a rare instance of a play in which the sound design, by Lee Kinney, is extremely essential to the plot.) Consider paying close attention to the beginning discussion between Afiya and Taroon, which is a tangled web of truth and falsehoods in which each word counts.
“Selling Kabul,” although a structural wonder, may sometimes come off as empty in its centre. Khoury rapidly and effectively draws out the characteristics of the protagonists, who are filled out by Francis Benhamou as Leyla, a chatty neighbour. Taroon’s impulsiveness, Jawid’s ambiguity, Leyla’s dazzling grief, and Afiya’s fretful good sense are all readily understandable to the audience. Afiya is the moral heart of the drama; Neshat is the show’s highlight performance. Although they play an important role in pushing the drama into a crisis, these characters’ words might come out as stilted, like when Taroon reacted to the birth of his kid by saying, “He’ll consider me a coward. In the open air, I’m too afraid to reveal my face.”
Another play set in a setting more recognisable to American viewers would make this less of an issue; similarly, additional plays set in this region, especially those written by playwrights of Middle Eastern heritage, would make it less of an issue. However, we don’t have many of them at the moment. In terms of what has been performed in New York, only “Homebody/Kabul,” “Blood and Gifts,” and “The Great Game: Afghanistan” spring to mind, all of which are written by white British and American authors. At its finest, theatre has the ability to bring the remote very near and humanise the abstract, bringing it all together.
Knowing that too few people in the United States will ever comprehend the civilian toll of conflicts like those in Afghanistan, I wish Khoury and Rafaeli, who are both of French and Lebanese descent, had done more to make these characters feel like real people rather than just cogs in a magnificent machine. It’s possible that this is merely my own remorse speaking, triggered by photos of the turmoil at Kabul airport after America’s failed August withdrawal and thinking that I should have been paying much closer attention. It’s the thing about a never-ending conflict fought half a globe away: I didn’t have to go into battle to save my life. “Selling Kabul” should not have made me, and it is unreasonable to want that.
Rather than being a source of amusement, think of it as a great exercise for your sympathetic nervous system – if I had continued to bite my nails, I would have no nails left today. And recognise that, although “Selling Kabul” might have ended horribly, it instead provides some glimmer of hope to all of its characters, even if it had to twist logic in order to keep that hope alive. A drama, on the other hand, has you when you’re inclined to cry, “For the love of everything holy, shut the door!” at the stage.)
You will discover an insert in your programme once the lights come back on with information about the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to persons in Taroon’s circumstances, a method to make that hope more tangible. Perhaps the true measure of a play is not how well it works inside the confines of a theatre, but how much it inspires you to act outside of those confines?