For the La Jolla Playhouse’s Blood & Gifts, Kris Stone devised a spare, semi-familiar set. A gray concrete barrier stretches across the rear stage, like the one at the end of a runway. Much of J.T. Rogers’s drama takes place in Pakistan and Afghanistan between 1981 and 1991. But we see few events first-hand in Russia’s ten-year war with Afghanistan. Shahrokh Yadegari’s booming sounds bring the bombs closer and closer and, finally, overhead. And the barrier does provide one visual: tight, pockmarked patterns suggest bullet holes from an AK. But the barrier blocks our view. We never know what’s on the other side.
The stage floor’s more abstract. Bone-dry earth lies beneath six glass squares. These suggest a chessboard. Diplomats, espionage agents, even a senator describe operations with the cold terminology of a chess match: how operatives must keep the Big Picture in mind and not attach themselves to a single piece. But the set has only six squares. More than half the “game” lies beyond our comprehension. And, it would appear, everyone else’s.
We rarely see a play like Blood & Gifts these days: a great big drama with sweeping themes and contemporary relevance. Among other things, it’s a primer on our country’s “pseudo-wars” (fought solely to keep a conflict going) and a backstory for why the U.S. has spent $5 billion a month for the past decade on Afghanistan.
In Act One, James Warnock acts like a god. He’s the CIA station chief in Pakistan. Much as Col. Edward Lansdale (“the ugly American”) did prior to the Vietnam “police action,” Warnock makes allies and promises covert aid in exchange for information. His only caveat: the weapons must be untraceable; America is not involved. As the conflict escalates, so does the call for more sophisticated weaponry, land mines, napalm, “sniper” rifles, and, eventually, Stinger missiles.
It soon becomes clear that Warnock — even the name’s symbolic — is a prevaricating machine. He wears a different mask for each person he meets and makes a different promise. Regardless of what he says, he obviously has a plan and looks in charge of undercover tactics beyond the wall.
(It’s the “But then one man...” syndrome that rules most movies: that one person can have a seemingly impossible influence. Warnock appears to have it in spades. Years of conditioning lead us to believe it.)
Act Two flips him and, like a paper bag, empties his contents. It’s now 1985. He’s a pawn who made a grave mistake. He developed trust with Abdullah Khan, a Mujahideen leader. While everything else shimmies with instability, at least their relationship has the ring of truth. Doesn’t it?
Robert Frost wrote: “We dance around the ring and suppose,/ But the secret sits in the center and knows.” If it weren’t the chronicle of a century-old struggle, Blood & Gifts could be a nightmarish farce. The question throughout is: who knows how much? And later, when they can’t recall which Russian leader ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, was/is there a “center” after all? In the multi-tinctured atmosphere of diplomacy, espionage, and plausible deniability, even “secrets corrode.”
Rogers tries to humanize his characters. When they aren’t negotiating vast sums of money or munitions — and inadvertently training Al Qaeda and the Sunni Awakening with U.S. funding — Warnock, Dmitri Gromov (the Russian agent), Simon Craig (British MI6), and Abdullah Kahn talk about family, having children, or how their children are doing. These exchanges, often at an airport and far from the action, help some. Though their personal woes can’t erase the havoc they are still spawning.
Kelly AuCoin’s Warnock begins like a character from Graham Greene and ends like one from Kafka. The play twists his “truth” and eventually wrings it out. In AuCoin’s invested performance, his body language — from spread-legged authority to slump-shouldered comeuppance — rings far truer than Warnock’s triple-speak.
Daniel Pearce counters AuCoin’s grit with a near-cartooned Simon Craig, outside-the-loop British MI6 agent. Pearce does provide comic relief, though with gestures far broader than need be.
Triney Sandoval’s excellent Gromov does a Warnock-like flip inspired, he must confess, by Glasnost. Donald Sage Mackay gives Warnock’s superior, Walter Barnes, an arctic façade and heart. Geoffrey Wade makes senator Jefferson Birch far colder than his historical counterpart, “Good Time” Charlie Wilson, the Texas politico who urged Congress to support “Operation Cyclone” and arm the Afghan Mujahideen to the teeth.
The play’s title falls heavily on Abdullah Kahn, who befriends Warnock and pays the price in gifts and blood. In Demosthenes Chrysan’s deeply felt performance, the Afghan warlord manages to keep some dignity amid unthinkable losses.
I highly recommend this production. For those unfamiliar with the Russian/Afghanistan war (or those who only know it from Rambo III, where bulletproof Sly Stallone single-handedly takes out an entire Russian fortress with just a Bowie knife), the names and events may fly by fast. I also recommend the La Jolla Playhouse’s program notes. Pages six and seven offer (impressively) terse, precise information that will get you up to speed beforehand. ■
Blood & Gifts, by J.T. Rogers
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien; cast: Triney Sandoval, Kelly AuCoin, Amir Arison, Benjamin Burdick, Danvir Singh Grewal, Daniel Pearce, Demosthenes Chrysan, Babak Tafti, Maurice Williams, Touheed Tony Yousef, Scott Patteson, Sarah Halford, Donald Sage Mackay, Geoffrey Wade, Regan Linton, Ngozi Anyanwu; scenic design, Kris Stone; costumes, Charlotte Devaux; lighting, Matthew Richards; sound, Sharokh Yadegari
Playing through July 8; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010