“Selling Kabul,” a play by Sylvia Khoury at Playwrights Horizons through December 23, tells a small, claustrophobic story about Taroon, an Afghani man who is holed up in his sister Afiya’s apartment in Kabul, hiding from the Taliban, because he was an interpreter for the U.S. Army, which has withdrawn from the country. It may confuse New York theatergoers to learn that the play is set in 2013. That’s what it says in the script, which was first produced in 2019 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
So, in other words, “Selling Kabul” was not written, rehearsed and produced in the little more than three months since the U.S. withdrew its last remaining troops from Afghanistan and ended its 20-year-war there.
That potential confusion helped me realize a limitation of Khoury’s play — or, perhaps more accurately, a limitation in the audiences who will be watching it. That is why, as timely as the drama might be, I think it would be a mistake for theatergoers to rely on “Selling Kabul” as a source of information about Afghanistan or the U.S. involvement there. Rather, it is a twisty drama that benefits from a fine production directed by Tyne Rafaeli, in which a committed cast offers persuasive portraits of four characters trying to survive, each of whom is living with fear, anxiety, or guilt.
Their tension ratchets up on the day the play takes place. Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez) finds out that his wife Bibi has just given birth to their first child. His sister Afiya (Marjan Neshat) gives the nervous father the news: Both mother and child are healthy, and …it’s a boy.
Taroon: Ten fingers? Ten toes?
Taroon: Our cousin—He was missing a pinky.
Afiya: I counted them.
Taroon couldn’t go to the hospital himself, for fear of reprisal; he has not left Afiya’s apartment for four months. He now insists on going to the hospital; Afiya insists he not risk everybody’s life by doing so. But Taroon has had enough. He has spent day after day by himself, while his sister and brother-in-law Jawid go out to work at Jawid’s tailor shop. Taroon tries to fix a broken router, in hopes that he’s received an email from Jeff, the American soldier for whom he interpreted, with the news that Taroon will indeed get the immigration visa to the United States that Jeff promised him before he left. Taroon also sneaks peeks at the oversized television set that dominates the living room, which he knows he shouldn’t do, since it might alert outsiders to his presence.
Even Leyla (Francis Benhamou), Afiya’s next door neighbor and good friend, has been kept in the dark about him, as we see when she suddenly pays a visit, escaping the headaches of caring for a five-month-old baby, who is mercifully taking a nap. Afiya has herself been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant, adding to her stress. Leyla, saying “I want to know what’s happening in your life,” starts asking how Afiya is doing; about Bibi’s new baby; about Taroon — “With the baby born, maybe it’s time Taroon start sending something” – which provokes Afiya’s angry response: She doesn’t know where Taroon is, she’s told her this, “get it through your head”…while Taroon hides a few feet away in the closet.
When Jawid (Mattico David) gets home, around halfway through the 95-minute play, we discover that Afiya has been lying to Taroon as well – that things are worse than she has been saying. And she is not the only one who hasn’t been upfront.
Khoury’s little revelations gather into an increasingly taut weave that tightens around the characters’ necks. If you look too closely, though, there are some holes in that weave. I’ll spare you specific spoilers, and just point out that the bittersweet ending, more bitter than sweet, is also more dramatic than logical.
More importantly: While we wind up sympathizing with all four of the characters on stage, although they themselves are often ashamed of their behavior, “Selling Kabul” offers up two unmitigated villains without any nuance at all: the Taliban, and U.S. immigration policy.
I understand that Khoury is trying to dramatize their impact on the lives of everyday Afghanis, not explore or explain complicated history and politics. But she does this in a way that allows theatergoers to exit feeling not just moved but also informed, without having actually learned very much.
Perhaps she assumes anybody buying a ticket to something called “Selling Kabul” would already know all they need to know. That’s where 2013 versus 2021 comes in: How many of us are aware of more than a couple of events in this timeline of the U.S. War in Afghanistan 1999-2021 presented by the Council on Foreign Relations?
As she demonstrated in “Power Strip,” her 2019 play at Lincoln Center about a couple of Syrian refugees in a notorious Greek refugee camp, Khoury is adept at dialogue, and dramatic moments. She’s able to create credible characters while exploring such sweeping themes as the psychological toll of surviving: The title “Selling Kabul” comes from Jawid’s disgust with himself for making army uniforms for the Taliban; he doesn’t see it as providing for his family; he sees it as selling out his country in order to buy a big TV set. Given all Khoury’s skills as a dramatist, I might have overlooked the concerns I have about “Selling Kabul” had this been the first play I’ve seen with Afghanistan as its ostensible subject.
Eleven years ago, I attended a marathon theatrical event entitled “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” a full day of short new plays by various established playwrights (19 works in all!) that dramatized the history of the country and its relationship with foreign powers from 1842 to 2010. It is possible for theater about Afghanistan to be dramatic, factual and illuminating. J.T. Rogers’ play “Blood and Gifts” debuted the following year. Then “The Boy Who Danced on Air” in 2017 demonstrated how it’s also possible for theater about Afghanistan to be overly dramatic, dubiously factual, and unilluminating. In October, LA Writers Center put together “The Voices of Afghanistan,”a videotaped “verbatim theater piece” based on interviews with Afghan and Afghan-American citizens, that is available on HowlRound.
What’s striking about all this theater – what they all have in common – is how they illustrate, through their rarity, the remarkably paltry level of attention we’ve paid to the longest war in American history.
Written by Sylvia Khoury
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
Playwrights Horizons through December 23
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer), Jen Schriever and Alex Fetchko (Lighting Designers), Lee Kinney (Sound Designer), Brett Anders
Cast: Francis Benhamou, Mattico David, and Marjan Neshat, and Dario Ladani Sanchez
Photographs by Joan Marcus