BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Under Oskar Eustis' artistic leadership, the Public Theater increasingly has been offering a number of works dealing with current events and politics. The latest, which opened Tuesday at the Skirball Center, is "The Great Game: Afghanistan," an imported series of 12 new plays commissioned and staged by London's Tricycle Theatre.
A shape-shifting 14-member company performs these troubling dramas drawn from the last 170 years of Afghanistan history as various British, Russian, American and NATO initiatives successively attempt — with tragic results for everyone concerned — to bring Western-style order to an extremely complex culture that confounds and defies all outside interference.
Here are some highlights among the dramas arranged sequentially over three separate programs:
Stephen Jeffreys' "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad" elegantly relates how more than 16,000 British soldiers and civilians perished over two days in 1842. Jemma Redgrave coolly depicts a gentlewoman caught in the chaos.
Joy Wilkinson's "Now Is the Time" depicts Afghanistan's own reformers stuck in a blizzard of conflicting interests as King Amanullah Khan, his consort and foreign minister journey towards exile in 1929.
David Edgar's "Black Tulips" is a grimly humorous look at the Soviet Army's failing campaign as a series of briefings for incoming troops rolls backwards from 1987 to 1981 with ironic significance. Shereen Martineau's weary translator and a brisk lesson in explosive devices by Rick Warden are noteworthy.
Colin Teevan's "The Lion of Kabul" is set in the zoo at Kabul in 1998 as human rights workers and locals collide with Taliban justice. "Is it not our human right to reject your freedom?" asks a mullah steely portrayed by Nabil Elouahabi. "That is one human right you do not recognize...We don't want to be like you." A horrifying conclusion may be total melodrama but the talk that occurs before it is provocative.
Ben Ockrent's "Honey" is a gradually intensifying account of covert (and confused) American operations in the later 1990s that ends hideously with an assassination on the brink of 9/11. Daniel Rabin is forceful as an Afghan leader undone by his allies.
Abi Morgan's "The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn" is set on an poppy farm and proves to be a quiet, thoughtful and ultimately touching look at a widow attempting to organize a school for girls in 2002.
A trio of short pieces by Siba Shakib regards the painting of a mural in 1996 and poignantly views Afghanistan's relationship with its own history and culture. Interspersed among the dramas are several "Verbatim" sequences of real-life observations on Afghanistan and related issues by the likes of Hillary Clinton and British Army leader General David Richards.
The acting is very good — these Brits assume believable American accents, incidentally — the visuals are fairly minimal but highly effective, Tom Lishman's sound design is especially acute and the staging by directors Nicolas Kent and Indhu Rubasingham brings considerable vitality to the more didactic pieces. Extensive program notes are helpful in terms of providing history and context for viewers — who really might want to read them before the shows begin.
Some of the plays are better than others but collectively they suggest nobody ever had any business poking their capitalist noses in the region. That's probably not big news to anybody who pays attention to current events but the ongoing tragedy these dramas relentlessly evoke certainly is bitter medicine to swallow in one large gulp of theatergoing.
"The Great Game: Afghanistan" continues through Dec. 19 at NYU's Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place. New York. Call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.skirballcenter.nyu.edu.