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Selling Kabul

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 6, 2021

Dario Ladani Sanchez and Marjan Nesha
Photo by Joan Marcus
Are Afghan homes known for the hideousness of their interiors? The first reaction walking into the Peter Jay Sharp Theater for Selling Kabul, Sylvia Khoury's taut and surprising drama, is: How ugly. Arnulfo Maldonado's exposed set, depicting a Kabul living room of 2013, reveals awful geometric wallpaper, a cramped step-up kitchenette, cushions scattered carelessly across gaudy rugs, and a small closet stage right. That closet will get quite the workout, because Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez) spends a fair amount of time living in it.

Taroon, you see, was a translator for U.S. troops, and now that they're beginning their withdrawal, the Taliban wants his head. (Whether he just translated or was more of a collaborator or spy is one of several questions Khoury doesn't answer.) He was close to Jeff, a soldier who promised him asylum before departing and hasn't been heard from since, leaving Taroon in desperate straits. But he's confident that he, his wife, and their newborn son will get visas. "America, their word is good," he insists. Not here, it isn't.

In fact, a lot is happening around Taroon—more than would logically be happening in one night, perhaps, but here's a case of dramatic license richly paying off. His wife has just given birth, in less-than-ideal circumstances that will only gradually be revealed. He's living secretly with his sister Afiya (Marian Neshat) and her husband Jawid (Mattico David), and no one, no one, can know of his whereabouts. Even turning on the TV in what's supposed to be an empty apartment could be taking too much of a chance. His enemies may be closing in on him.

A tense situation, then, and given what we all witnessed as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan last summer, not territory you may be eager to revisit. But Khoury pulls a clever, even devastating, trick on us. As Taroon sequesters himself in that closet, Afiya is visited by her neighbor and best friend Leyla (Francis Benhamou), who of course doesn't know he's there, and the two indulge in some carefree girl talk. Leyla, who obsesses over her infant son, is bubbly and chatty and enthusiastic, a sort of Lili Taylor part, and for much of its first half Selling Kabul could be Afghan Neil Simon. First, Taroon and Afiya enthuse and joke about the new family member; the only tension is about whether he gets to visit his wife at the hospital or not, which Taroon is determined to do and Afiya feels is too risky.

But, despite the severity of the circumstances, Khoury and director Tyne Rafaeli keep the mood light, convincing us that Selling Kabul is just a moment-in-time slice of life. Only slowly do they divulge dire facts. They mislead us with mistruths told by various characters, who have good reasons for lying, but aren't aware of how the misunderstandings will pile up and make a dangerous situation worse. And as matters careen out of control, we get to know these people better and care about them more. Taroon, impulsive and quick to anger, is still a likeable ordinary guy. Afiya, smart and organized and decisive, is hampered by seeing her rights as a woman being steadily taken away from her by the brutal extremists running things. Jawid, who arrives later, is gentle and supportive, but also morally compromised (he's a tailor who sews uniforms for the Taliban), and he knows it. And Leyla, at first essentially the comic relief, has to do a total character turnaround as terrible things happen outside these doors—a 180 not every actor could negotiate, and Benhamou does brilliantly.

Marjan Neshat, Mattico David, and Francis Benhamou
Photo by Joan Marcus
They're relatively well off, these people, and privileged by Afghan standards, and it's still a miserable, fraught existence. Is Taroon going to escape? Will he find out more about what happened at the hospital? Will Afiya ever have the opportunity to attain what is clearly her unmet potential? Khoury keeps us in suspense.

We're not clear on where Taroon's wife has been during his concealment, or who knows what about it, or why Sanchez, Neshat, and Benhamou speak without accents—they could be from New Jersey, perhaps a ploy to help us identify more with them—while David has one. There's one incomprehensible plot turn, when Leyla one moment announces the Taliban have kidnapped her baby, and a few moments later they haven't. But the writing, if occasionally too poetic, is excellent, especially in the way Khoury—working in real time, yet—keeps throwing curves at us.

And it's the first-rate production one expects of Playwrights Horizons, with Sanchez conveying Taroon's untamed nature mixed with familial concern, Neshat a tower of frustrated strength as the one character who always seems to know what to do, and David aptly hiding Jawid's self-loathing. Jen Schriever and Alex Fetchko's lighting is expressive, and Lee Kinney's sound design is unusually good—no mics, or anyway it doesn't sound like it, and the helicopters, trucks, and infant cries are at just the right locations and volumes.

Watching Selling Kabul, will you dwell on the long-ago insistence that the West would be "welcomed as liberators," and how that went? Very possibly. And will you ache for the fates of these four, trapped in circumstances beyond their control? Absolutely. On the surface, this may be an unpalatable topic. But among the bumper crop of issue plays this season, Selling Kabul is surely one of the strongest.

Selling Kabul
Through December 23, 2021
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., New York
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