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REVIEW: ‘Blood and Gifts’ dramatizes Afghan conflicts

bloodgrits112111_optBY MICHAEL SOMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW

The ugly Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and the simultaneous spy-versus-spy-versus-spy operations of other nations interested in its outcome are dramatized by J.T. Rogers in his new play, “Blood and Gifts,” which opened Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

A smart, sturdily-constructed drama, “Blood and Gifts” compresses plenty of history into two acts while thoughtfully providing a balanced account of the prolonged struggle’s clashing viewpoints.

The play, which spans the years 1981-1991, centers upon Jim Warnock (Jeremy Davidson), a CIA agent who increasingly supplies a distrustful Afghan warlord (Bernard White) with money and arms to fight the occupying Soviet forces.

Haunted by a previous failure to protect his allies in Iran, Warnock contends with a wily KGB operative (Michael Aronov), a conflicted British agent (Jefferson Mays) and a Pakistani secret service official (Gabriel Ruez). Warnock meanwhile has other issues back in Washington D.C. with his CIA boss (John Procaccino).

In order to humanize these covert chess players, the playwright equips Warnock and several other characters with back stories about their family lives that influence their actions. This stratagem at times seems somewhbloodngrits112111_optat contrived.

The key problem with “Blood and Gifts” is one Rogers cannot avoid: Everybody in the audience already suspects that nothing is going to turn out well for the various American, Russian, Pakistani and especially the Afghan individuals whose entwined stories unfold here. Individual scenes possess dramatic tension but overall this well-written fictional drama takes viewers on a relentless ride towards the downside.

Very well-acted by a 14-member company, the play benefits further from director Bartlett Sher’s solid production for Lincoln Center Theater. Fluent scenic elements designed by Michael Yeargan deploy upon an arena stage around which the characters sit and observe the action when they are not included in it. The lighting by Donald Holder provides atmosphere and drama, as does Peter John Still’s ominous sound design.

Ultimately more earnest than insightful, “Blood and Gifts” considers a sorrowful stretch of recent history in Afghanistan that, sad to note, promises to get worse in the future for everyone involved there.

“Blood and Gifts” continues through Jan. 1 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.lct.org.

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