Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 14, 2019

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Selling Kabul”

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 20, 2019
by Barbara Stroup

Photo by Joseph O'Malley
In a comfortable Kabul apartment, a young man battles technology (and who has not had that struggle lately?) But his need is not to send the latest selfie or hook up a DVD player; his future, and that of his family, depend on receiving a visa, his lifeline to freedom. Taroon (played by Babak Tafti) was a translator for the U.S. military and is no longer needed by the departing Americans. Now, the Taliban is hunting for him, as well as any associates. Hiding out in his sister’s flat, he waits for her return from the hospital with news of his wife’s safety after delivering their first child.

So begins the world premiere of Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul” on the Nikos stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, a stage used frequently for new works and “new play” award-winners. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, this eighty-minute, no-intermission drama deals with the pain of choice, the terror and fear of anarchic politics, the literal and metaphoric roar of military machinery, and the longing of four young people for normal family life. Taroon’s sister Afiya (played by Marjan Neshat) longs for a baby, her husband Jawid (Omid Abtahi) wants his country back, and their lively neighbor Leyla, played by May Calamawy, craves an evening alone with her husband. Taroon’s hideout puts everyone in more and more danger as the visa fails to materialize. The drama unfolds over the course of a single evening with ever-increasing tension. The conflicts that arise—between sister and brother, neighbor and friend, longing and patient waiting, national loyalty and pragmatic safety, freedom and boundaries—are all played out within the apartment’s walls.

The myriad moments of personal battles, tense and argumentative interaction, and high emotionality propel the drama to a relentless close: only the coldest heart would not be moved by the peril involved in the difficult life choices each character makes. But the stage seems too small to contain it authentically; one longs for scenes outside the apartment, maybe even the scenic opportunities that a movie version would offer the playwright. There’s a powerful story here with characters deserving our respect and empathy, but it demands more time and a wider canvas for context and depth. These four young actors have little opportunity to infuse their characters with anything other than stress and tension. The script provides only a few lighter moments as relief from the turmoil. One wishes that Ms. Rafaeli’s direction would highlight them more—as well as Afiyah’s sewing, which is pivotal to understanding the play’s title. Lighting and sound are very effective. The frequent and frightening knocks on the door remind the audience all too well of the events in our own country and how little has changed for those with little power, even those outside war zones. This is a serious play with an expansive mission; kudos to Williamstown for supporting new work.