Blood and Gifts by J.T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher is about American global politics and the CIA's behind-the-scenes involvement in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980's. For the weight and seriousness of the material, the approach was thankfully more black comedy-drama that straight up drama. Though it covers a great deal of history, it does so in an accessible way. What could have easily drifted into dull, dry lecture managed to stay crisp, funny and interesting until almost the bitter end of the show.
My aunt, uncle and cousins lived in Iraq in the 1980's. From an early age, I grew up with the perverse understanding that the US could very easily support someone like Saddam Hussein (who was bugging all the calls we made to our family) in the war against Iran until he turned around and pointed US guns back at us. And then you back a different horse. The play's snarky, hindsight view of America's involvement in Afghanistan was particularly appealing to me. The show does a great job laying out the situation where the US chooses to get involved to keep the Soviets at bay but inevitably gets into a dirty business with everyone and anyone else to fight the Soviets. Questions of the morality of the choices made are explored through various characters. Most interesting is the question of "success" and when does this game ever end.
The story is carried by Jeremy Davidson (who has a very sexy speaking voice by the by), as the CIA agent James Warnock sent to lead the covert mission in Afghanistan through his station in Pakistan with the help of the Pakistan government (which has its own agenda). Also involved is Jefferson Mays playing an MI6 agent who is trying to coordinate his approach with the Americans but finds himself constantly at odds with Pakistan's approach. Warnock gets deeply entangled with a mujahideen freedom fighter and his team (played by Bernard White and Pej Vahdat), though the Pakistan government wants another "freedom" fighter backed against the Soviets.
Despite all this history, the caustic and amusing banter between characters keeps the story moving and the material riveting. The actors are all strong. Jefferson Mays was a stand-out (with an amazing regional British accent which slips out depending on his anger/drunkenness). He does a great job portraying the character who starts to unravel with the consequences of long-term game-playing in the region. He has some febrile drunk scenes that are incredibly believable without being over-the-top. Bernard White also does a fantastic job of being a man of principles knowing he is a pawn.
Sher stages the actors around the edge of the stage as the scenes unfold. As an audience member, this choice is a constant reminder of all the players in the region and that no action can be taken in a vacuum.
I found the show dragging a just little as the story came to a close and the more it became about the characters personal lives. But on the whole I was glad I caught this show before it's January closing. J.T. Rogers is a writer I will look out for in the future.