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Blood and Gifts

Despite a well-grounded and admirably lucid production helmed by LCT resident director Bartlett Sher, new play "Blood and Gifts" has no heart.

Despite a well-grounded and admirably lucid production helmed by LCT resident director Bartlett Sher, new play “Blood and Gifts” has no heart. J.T. Rogers’ overview of the mess made by the big foreign powers when they were busily meddling in Afghanistan between 1981 and 1991 is not lacking in intelligence. But for all the finger-pointing and handwringing, the drama draws its political message from the actions of stereotyped characters in cliched situations.

Play originated in England as one of several short works about Afghanistan commissioned by the Tricycle Theater for a 12-hour marathon production called “The Great Game.” The expanded version seen here was done last year at the National Theater.

Bartlett Sher’s new staging of the play for the intimate space at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater is simplicity itself. In Michael Yeargan’s subtle stage design, a geometric floor pattern of Middle Eastern tiles is enough to set the action in various locales in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. (When called for, a gigantic American flag drops down to whisk the action to Washington.) Low benches set along three sides of the stage are an efficient way to stockpile actors for quick exits and entrances.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes might not be strictly accurate, but they’re suggestive enough to pass for the real thing. And Donald Holder’s warm lighting stops short of piercing the eyeballs to make us pay attention.

Pared down to the bone, Rogers’ Cold War thriller presents a subjective precis of events during the decade between 1981 and 1991 when Russia had an occupying army in Afghanistan. In attempting to subvert the Russians, the blundering Western powers led by the United States and Great Britain conspired with Pakistan to arm the mujahideen “freedom fighters” — and inadvertently laid the groundwork for the fanatical Islamist militancy and tribal factionalism that led to civil war.

The story is even more compelling than the one Rogers told in “The Overwhelming” about the genocidal bloodbaths in Rwanda. But those atrocities were viewed from the perspective of a realistically drawn American family made vulnerable by their political ignorance. Here, the players couldn’t pass for anything but broadly drawn figureheads.

Dmitri Gromov (Michael Aronov), a Russian KGB agent, and James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson), the CIA station chief, meet cute at the airport in Islamabad. They are soon joined by Simon Craig (Jefferson Mays), a fecklessly charming MI6 British agent.

Although Rogers takes care to give these three spooks individualized personal histories, they aren’t remotely believable. To be sure, Aronov plays Gromov with self-mocking Russian wit, and Mays finds the sad, soft spot that dissolves Craig’s British reserve. But Davidson does nothing to humanize Jim Warnock by playing that decent but naive American with a lantern jaw and rigid spine. Thesping skills aside, the men are what they are — projections of nationalist traits.

The lack of realism becomes more acute when Warnock and Craig join the ruthless Pakistani Colonel Afridi (a very scary Gabriel Ruiz) in plotting to drive the Russians out of the country.

Craig very sensibly suggests arming Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik warlord with broad popular support. Colonel Afridi pushes for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Pashtun leader of an army of Islamist extremists.

Both men are historical figures and it would have been interesting to watch the conspirators negotiating with either one, or both of them. But no, Warnock throws his support behind the fictional Abdullah Kahn, an honorable man in Bernard White’s authoritative perf, but, you know, a made-up person.

Rogers is an accomplished scribe who brings real intelligence (and much literate dialogue) to the stage. But there’s not enough dramatic art here to sustain a work of fiction — and not enough reality for an authentic historical drama.

Blood and Gifts

Lincoln Center Theater/Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; 276 seats; $85 top

  • Production: A Lincoln Center presentation of a play in two acts by J. T. Rogers. Directed by Bartlett Sher.
  • Crew: Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Peter John Still; production stage manager, Jeff Hamlin. Opened Nov. 21, 2011. Reviewed Nov. 19. Running time: TWO HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Dmitri Gromov - Michael Aronov<BR> James Warnock - Jeremy Davidson <BR>Colonel Afridi - Gabriel Ruiz <BR>Simon Craig - Jefferson Mays <BR>Abdullah Khan - Bernard White <BR>Saeed - Pej Vahdat <BR>Walter Barnes - John Procaccino With: Andres Munar, Paul Niebanck, Andrew Weems, Liv Rooth, Robert Hogan, Rudy Mungaray, J. Paul Nicholas.
  • Music By: