November 26, 2011

Why "Blood and Gifts" Is a Sure-Fire Keeper

You gotta love the folks at Lincoln Center Theater.  Or at least I do.  Artistic director André Bishop and executive producer Bernard Gersten do what too few of their not-for-profit brethren do. Instead of just yakking about the need for big ambitious plays that tell big complex stories, Lincoln Center actually puts on shows like Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia and John Guare’s A Free Man of Color, which—be they hits or misses—do what art should do: take risks.

The latest example of this—the company’s 145th production, according to the Playbill—is Blood and Gifts, the potent new play by J.T. Rogers that opened this week at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.  And it’s a winner.

In fact, Rogers is a playwright after my own heart. Unlike so many contemporary American playwrights, he refuses to navel gaze and instead writes pieces that wrestle with the major political and global issues of our time or, as he called it in a now famous speech a couple of years ago, “theater that engages the public realm.” (Click here to read a recent NYTimes profile of him).

Rogers’ last play The Overwhelming, dealt with the genocide in Rwanda. While I appreciated the effort, I felt that it came across as more didactic than dramatic (click here to see my review). But the playwright has deepened his craft since then and Blood and Gifts offers a more satisfyingly visceral experience.

The idea for the play came to Rogers when he was the only American asked to contribute to The Great Game: Afghanistan, the 12-play cycle that London’s Tricycle Theatre produced about Afghanistan's troubled relationship with the West over the past three centuries.

Rogers focused on the CIA’s support of the mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet Union in the ‘80s but who later morphed into the Taliban that we’re still fighting today.  The story he ended up wanting to tell was longer and more involved than the cycle’s one-act would allow and so he later expanded it into a full-length play.

The one-act version of the play was withdrawn from The Great Game before the Public Theater presented a limited run last December (click here to see my review of that) so I can’t compare the two. But the one now at the Mitzi moves with the deftness and depth of a Graham Greene novel.

Blood and Gifts starts in 1981 when CIA agent James Warnock arrives in Pakistan to direct the agency’s supposedly covert support for the Afghan freedom fighters. It ends a decade later, shortly before the downfall of the Soviet puppet Mohammad Najibullah and the eventual takeover of Afghanistan by Islamic fundamentalists.

In between, the play follows the volatile political and personal alliances among the tribal leaders on the battlefront, their American, British, and Russian handlers just across the border in Pakistan and the politicians and agency bureaucrats pulling the strings back in Washington. 

Viewers should be advised that parts of the first act play like an eat-your-spinach "Frontline" documentary and so it can be hard to keep track of all the names and allegiances.  But the main characters eventually emerge—each a believably human mix of good and bad impulses and actions. And it isn’t all grim. Rogers has great fun with the Afghans’ fondness for ‘80s pop culture.

The acting is excellent almost across the board. Jeremy Davidson is a little stiff as Warnock but it works for the role. And there is nimble work by Jefferson Mays as a wryly frustrated MI5 agent (click here to read an interview with him) and Bernard White as an heroic warlord. In a smaller role, John Procaccino is so right-on as a CIA official back in Washington that it felt as though he’d just taken the Acela up from Langley.

The entire 14-member cast is well guided by director Bartlett Sher who refuses to give into the temptation to imitate a movie (it would make a good one) and keeps the show a truly theatrical experience. The main players never truly leave the stage but sit on benches along its sides, looming presences in the scenes in which they don’t appear.

Set designer Michael Yeargan’s mix of new stagecraft (the subtle use of video projections) and old (the draping of a large American flag) expertly signal the location of the action.  As do the very good sound effects by Peter John Still and lighting by Donald Holder. 

I saw Blood and Gifts on the night before Thanksgiving and there were a good number of empty seats.  I’m hoping that’s just a reflection of the holiday.  Because everyone who loves meaningful theater ought to do what Lincoln Center does: put their money where their mouth is and go see this show.

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