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Theatre in Review: The Kite Runner (Hayes Theatre)

Faran Tahir and Dariush Kashani. Photo: Joan Marcus

The theatre has arrived at an oddly bookish moment -- beginning, I think, with the arrival of War Horse in 2011 and rapidly accelerating since then. While Broadway's golden era saw adaptations of Ethan Frome, The Great Gatsby, and Native Son, and musicals from South Pacific to Wicked have drawn on literary sources, we're seeing an increased interest in dramatized novels, both modern and classic. Broadway audiences have flocked to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and To Kill a Mockingbird. Off Broadway, playwright Kate Hamill is a one-woman assembly line, turning out theatricalized editions of Alcott, Austen, Stoker, and Thackeray with machine-like regularity. Later this season, we may be getting Life of Pi, a West End hit based on Yann Martel's adventure tale. (Not everything works: A Time to Kill, taken from one of John Grisham's thrillers, withered on Broadway and a version of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces never made it to town.)

When such an enterprise succeeds, it is, I think, because it finds a specific theatrical language, a method of storytelling, that makes it unique -- something The Kite Runner never quite achieves. Playwright Matthew Spangler clearly has a deep affection for Khaled Hosseini's blockbuster novel, and he strives, honorably and sometimes effectively, to translate into theatrical terms the saga of a friendship between two Afghan boys, the consequences of which reverberate across several decades. But the playwright's ardor is sometimes misplaced. Indeed, he may be blinded by love, failing to address the original's very real problems; in some cases, he makes them worse. The good news is that The Kite Runner retains the page-turning qualities it had in print; the bad news is that, like Hosseini, Spangler lets the narrative spin out of control, sacrificing credibility for yet another twist in the tale.

The far more focused first act establishes the crosscurrents roiling an all-male household in 1970s Kabul. Amir, a young boy, lives with his widowed father, Baba, a secular Muslim who likes his glass of Scotch. Baba wanted an extroverted, soccer-playing scion to take over the family business; instead, he got withdrawn, book-loving Amir, who, in turn, is wounded by his father's all-too-swift judgments. Their relationship, although not devoid of love, is shaped by mutual disappointment and a lurking resentment. Baba particularly dislikes Amir's fiction-writing ambitions; for encouragement, the boy turns to Rahim Khan, Baba's great friend and business partner, who functions as a substitute father figure.

Amir is also puzzled by Baba's devotion to Ali, his servant and lifelong companion. The men were raised together; similarly, Hassan, Ali's son, is both Amir's servant and his de facto best friend. As in the book, Spangler shows how this quartet's bonds of affection are shaped (or constrained) by lines of class and ethnicity: Amir and Baba are Pashtuns, members of the ruling elite, while Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, a group subject to persecution. Despite a tendency to portray Ali and Hassan as inherently saintly and uncomplaining, Spangler acutely details their inequitable relationships with Baba and Amir. Indeed, Amir and Hassan can be the happiest of playmates -- especially when competing in the kite-fighting matches that are the source of the title -- until Amir decides to show who is the boss.

These divisions are exposed when Assef, a Pashtun bully who is jealous of Amir and Hassan's closeness, traps Hassan and rapes him. Amir witnesses the attack, about which Hassan remains silent; horrified and ashamed -- Hassan was retrieving a kite for his friend -- Amir tries to get the boy and his father sent away. Infuriated by Baba's devotion to his retainers, Amir frames Hassan for theft; when Hassan, faithful to the last, confesses to the crime, Ali, humiliated, retreats to the countryside with his son.

One of the story's ironies is that, even without Amir's scheming, he might have been separated from Ali and Hassan, thanks to the Soviet Union's invasion a few years later. As it happens, Amir and Baba end up as refugees, ultimately relocating to San Francisco. This is where The Kite Runner starts to buckle under its narrative weight. Nearly half the second act deals with Amir maturing into a published novelist while courting Soraya, the daughter of an exiled Afghan general, while tending to an increasingly ailing Baba; included in this sequence is a subplot about Amir and Soraya's fertility problems. Then comes an out-of-the-blue phone call from Rahim Khan -- remember Rahim Khan? -- summoning Amir to Pakistan for a momentous confrontation, loaded with bombshell revelations, followed by a perilous mission to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in search of a youth whose existence is news to Amir. This expedition, which is designed to erase Amir's debt to Hassan, includes an unwelcome reunion so unlikely it might have Victor Hugo chortling in disbelief.

I mention Hugo advisedly; it seems likely that Hosseini, a first-time novelist, drew on the 19th-century masters when constructing his elaborate plot. But, just as the book turns increasingly melodramatic and unconvincing, the play's second act is loaded with hey-wait-a-minute moments and turns of event desperately in need of further explication. Soraya is a blandly two-dimensional female lead -- a perky literature major -- until she reveals an explosive secret about a youthful escapade that would likely leave her emotionally scarred. (It certainly calls into question her relationship with her father.) Rahim Khan makes his eleventh-hour appearance, throwing a bunch of narrative curveballs, then vanishes without explanation. When it looks as if the story is finally wrapping up, Spangler and Hosseini toss in a blatantly manipulative twist involving US immigration and a suicide attempt. (9/11 sneaks in there, too.) One credibly begins to feel as if the writers are torturing their characters for the sport of it.

By the way, I can't tell you how many of these incidents must be delivered via long blocks of narration, suggestion that the book resists being transformed for the stage. Most of these passages are delivered by Amir Arison, best-known for the NBC series The Blacklist, who heroically carries the story while illuminating the dark corners of Amir's guilty conscience. Amir is a tricky character, both needy and more than a little cruel, and at any moment the audience could turn against him. But the actor keeps us vitally interested in Amir's chances of redemption. Nobody else in the cast has comparably juicy material, but Eric Sirakian touchingly captures Hassan's blind loyalty; Evan Zes is affecting as Ali; Dariush Kashani gives Rahim Khan a natural authority; Amir Malaklou is both brutal and faintly pathetic as Assef; Azita Ghanizada lends tremendous warmth to Soraya; and Houshang Touzie is imposing as her father. Special mention goes to Faran Tahir, whose Baba is, initially, magnetic and a little bit scary and, later, a lost, diminished figure in exile. The tabla artist Salar Nader provides steady percussive underscoring; other cast members appear using instruments native to Central and South Asia.

Director Giles Croft is never less than efficient, keeping the action moving at a steady clip and drawing solid (and sometimes better) work from his cast. The functional production design includes a relatively bare set, by Barney George, featuring a carved upstage skyline backed by a screen, both used as surfaces for William Simpson's colorful, at times almost impressionist, projections of pomegranate trees, skies, and Pakistani streets. (There's an interesting fan effect, which creates additional projection surfaces.) George has also provided costumes that track the evolution of styles from the early '70s to the '80s and beyond. Charles Balfour's lighting design, based almost entirely on overhead and side angles, is generally attractive. Drew Baumohl's's sound design balances the actors' voices with effects such as thunder, the use of live musical instruments, and Jonathan Girling's incidental music.

By the time the surviving characters reconvene in San Francisco for an ending that carries a strong hint of hope, you may feel tired out from the plot's many contortions. "Well, people need stories, too, to divert them at difficult times like this," says Soraya's father, justifying Amir's choice of career. But art requires a certain discretion; even onstage, The Kite Runner remains the project of a novice writer determined to pour everything he knows into a single narrative vessel. Does the vessel hold together? Yes, but only just. --David Barbour


(27 July 2022)

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