Barnes (Simon Kunz), the CIA boss heading the Afghanistan campaign is at the end of his tether. “Key people are waffling. They’re asking: ‘Why are we still there? How long is this operation going to go on?'” Few questions could be more topical, but actually this political thriller by American dramatist J.T. Rogers is set in the past. A study of the bloody 1980s Cold War in Afghanistan as America struggled against the Soviets, “Blood and Gifts” is the compelling story of how we got to where we are now.

The history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the covert American intervention via Pakistan is, to put it mildly, a multi-faceted story. Attempting to dramatize all the machinations and motives of its diverse players risks having the play spiral out of control, so Rogers shapes the drama via a driving central character, local CIA chief Jim Warnock, played by fiercely direct Lloyd Owen.

Opening with his arrival at Islamabad airport in 1981 and ending in 1991, two years after the Soviet withdrawal, the play charts Warnock’s – and, by inference, the West’s – journey from (at best) naive hope to disillusionment.

Onstage throughout, Warnock is at the center of the action in a non-stop succession of tense exchanges. Upping the thriller ante, every scene is a dangerous negotiation. Weaponry, political power and, crucially, lives are at stake as Warnock makes denials and deals with everyone.

There are sharp performances throughout the cast, especially a hilariously exasperated Adam James as Warnock’s bullish, motor-mouthed British Intelligence counterpart. Watchful, austere Demosthenes Chrysan brings gravitas to the favored rebel leader Abdullah Khan while Philip Arditti brings volatility to Abdullah’s second-in-command Saeed, a man with a passion for American popular culture, especially the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

That last trait is indicative of the wit that unexpectedly enlivens the murky proceedings. Yet there’s no escaping that for much of the first act, the play risks information overload.

In a manner reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s approach on “The West Wing,” Rogers refuses to spoonfeed audiences with easy exposition. Scenes take off so fast that audiences simply have to catch up. Pace and tension are high but the detailing of the war’s feuds, truths, expediencies and downright lies as depicted in the first act is confusing,

Yet what becomes clear in the second act is that the key players themselves are hidebound by the close-up, day-to-day detail. Armed, however, with his careful structure – and hindsight – audiences, are granted the bigger picture in, as it were, wide-shot. Confusing an audience is a fascinatingly risky strategy but here it really pays off.

The potential downside of a play so intent upon political analysis is that it lacks subtext. But Howard Davies’s production is strikingly fleet.

Ultz’s ruthlessly nondescript, mostly beige walls and blinds slide effortlessly back and forth to create contrasting spaces. And Mark Teitler’s music for the transitions maintains tension, supplying eerie threat via neat echoes of John Barry’s Cold War spy-movie scores.

Everything is held together, however, by Owen. At a crunch point just before addressing the senate, he thunders at an underling: “Jerry, get out or I will have you killed.” The remark is so comically extreme it wins a laugh. But what makes the moment work is that Owen’s performance has been so authoritative that for a split second you believe he has the power to do just that.

Initially seen in a much shorter version as part of London’s Tricycle Theater’s sequence of Afghan history plays “The Great Game,” which has just begun a U.S tour, this full-length version was commissioned by Lincoln Center. That a play about U.S. foreign policy should receive its premiere staging in the U.K. is undeniably ironic. Its subject makes for a hard sell in the commercial world, but the power of Davies’ production should aid its American homecoming.

Blood and Gifts

Olivier, National Theater, London; 898 seats; £44 top

  • Production: A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by J. T. Rogers. Directed by Howard Davies.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Ultz; lighting, Paul Anderson; sound, Paul Arditti; music, Mark Teitler; production stage manager, Simon Didson. Opened, reviewed Sept. 14, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: James Warnock - Lloyd Owen Abdullah Khan - Demosthenes Chrysan Simon Craig - Adam James Saeed - Philip Arditti Dmitri Gromov - Matthew Marsh Colonel Afridi - Gerald Kyd Walter Barnes - Simon Kunz Sen. Jefferson Birch - Duncan Bell
  • Music By: