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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By DL Simmons
. Lest any theater-goers' eyes glaze over at the mention of geopolitics, be mindful that riveting drama is often ripped from the headlines. And Sylvia Khoury's new play Selling Kabul is, make no mistake, a riveting drama.
What begins as a modest premise for a "bottle" script (the term TV showrunners use for episodes confined to a single setting) escalates rapidly into dangerous territory, ratcheting up tension by the minute. If the play were any longer than its 80 continuous, tightly-wound minutes, the audience would need a licensed physical therapist to help uncoil them from their seats. On press night, the packed house exited the theater emotionally wiped out — but exhilarated to have discovered a searing new work.
.. Khoury's pressure-cooker plot unfolds in a tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2013. Taroon (Babak Tafti), a nervous translator for U.S. troops, has been hiding out here from the Taliban while he awaits the birth of his child and their long-promised visas. The apartment belongs to his doting sister Afiya (Marjan Neshat) and her soft-spoken husband Jawid (Omid Abtahi), who report that Taroon's wife has just delivered a healthy baby boy at a nearby hospital. The elated, yet stir-crazy Taroon is half-paranoid over his wife's lack of security and wholly fed up with having to hide from his sister's intrusive neighbor Leyla (May Calamawy). He's a bright young rebel both on the edge of adulthood and the verge of a nervous breakdown.
. What Taroon isn't told is that the Taliban's web is closing in around him. Not only is his own life in imminent danger, so are the fates of family members — including his newborn son — as well as friends who know his whereabouts. If anyone has the presence of mind to help him navigate a daring escape to Tehran, it will be his sister Afiya. The surprising twist (and this shouldn't be interpreted as a plot spoiler) is that Selling Kabul turns out to be Afiya's play more than her brother's.
. It's this plausible sister/brother dynamic that elevates Khoury's writing above expectations for a young dramatist. Afiya and Taroon are intimately vulnerable in each other's presence; they can nitpick one minute and share sewing tips the next. Their relationship is so lived-in that we immediately buy them as regular folks instead of foreigners. Actors Marjan Neshat and Babak Tafti may not look much alike, but they convey a bond that's stronger than a few weeks of rehearsal. If the play has a long life — and it deserves to — the actors will develop an organic rapport that transcends physical dissimilarities.
. Tafti nails his impulsive, headstrong character as he matures from mercurial youth to sober, terrified father. It must be an exhausting role, for he's a bundle of nerves on stage. Every time he dashes for his hiding space, he emerges a little more untethered than before. Neshat's role is more internal and even-keeled despite the fear growing inside. Her physicality isn't as commanding as Tafti's, but every now and then she reveals steely resolve with dire warnings like "You will leave without your visa or you will leave without your head!" (Siblings never lack for straight talk.) Plus her final scene is a corker.
. While Tafti's Taroon is a brash, modern Afghan, Omid Abtahi plays his brother-in-law Jawid as a patient and contemplative traditionalist. But his stolid affect masks an unhealthy reserve of self-doubt. That cool exterior also makes him an unsettling messenger of doom — he's the guy who calmly assesses when a situation escalates from risky to oh-shit-we're-in-big-trouble. Abtahi registers in this supporting role while fully disappearing into it. We never doubt Jawid's sincerity, nor Abtahi's commitment to his high character.
. Meanwhile, May Calamawy's Leyla is introduced as the "Rhoda" character — the wisecracking neighbor who unexpectedly becomes a complex and pivotal component in the story. There is something abrasive about Calamawy's initial manner that might play better if reserved for the character's mid-arc section. Calamawy easily connects with Leyla's earthy sense of humor, so it's just a matter of adjusting degrees before her desperate side emerges.
. Director Tyne Rafaeli has done an impressive job realizing this play's potential and finding just the right pace to keep the runaway locomotive on track. The decision to have the actors speak in unaccented English is a wise one. While there are surely tweaks to come, there's raw power in this world premiere presentation that shouldn't be taken for granted. Rafaeli is aided in particular by Arnulfo Maldonado's ingenious, efficient set design, which proves just how effective subtracting space can be. In fact, all the technical departments bring their "A" game to this production. The metaphoric prop at the end is arguably on-the-nose in its color choice, but it's a powerful symbol nonetheless.
. With Selling Kabul, Rafaeli and playwright Khoury delve into rich co-themes like guilt and shame, cowardice and bravery, personal culpability and national pride, murder and miscarriage, and, of course, death and (re)birth. Their drama has so much going for it, the unfortunate title should probably be addressed at some point. Though it has thematic value once its meaning is explained, it sells the play's universal scope short. And, sadly, it will probably turn away the very audience that should see it most.
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. Selling Kabul by Sylvia Khoury
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Cast: Babak Tafti (Taroon) Marjan Neshat (Afiya) Omid Abtahi (Jawid) May Calamawy (Leyla)
Scenic Designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz
Lighting Designer: Jen Schriever
Sound Designer: Beth Lake
Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, Williamstown, MA
From 7/10/19; closing 7/20/19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at July 14 performance (evening)
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