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Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company | Theater review

J.T. Rogers dramatizes the CIA's role in the Afghan-Soviet war with a keen sense of its continuing resonations.

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Anish Jethmalani, Timothy Edward Kane and Raymond Fox in Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Terry Hamilton and Timothy Edward Kane in Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Timothy Edward Kane and Raymond Fox in Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Timothy Edward Kane in Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Kareem Bandealy in Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Timothy Edward Kane,Peter Sipla, Andrew L. Saenz, Owais Ahmed and Behzad Dabu inBlood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Lara Goetsch)
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Photograph: Lara Goetsch

Blood and Gifts at TimeLine Theatre Company

This fictionalized saga of the Afghan-Soviet conflict that lasted throughout the 1980s, and the CIA's involvement in it, is ostensibly a story of spy games. Yet it's other kinds of games that keep cropping up in his characters' metaphors: The CIA boss of James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane), the chief American operative monitoring the war from neighboring Pakistan, uses a chess board comparison to warn his man from getting too attached to an Afghan warlord ally (Kareem Bandealy). Warnock and a KGB counterpart (Terry Hamilton) talk in terms of baseball, while an adversarial Pakistani intelligence officer (Anish Jethmalani) reminds Warnock that around here, the game is cricket. Translation: You don't understand the rules.

J.T. Rogers's highly researched 2010 work manages to dramatize the complex tangle of events over a decade in a manner that's illuminating without feeling like a lecture or a History Channel reenactment. And Rogers, the too-rare American playwright with an eye toward global issues, of course writes with the benefit of hindsight; there's a dark wryness in his depiction of how our actions might have facilitated the rise of the mujahideen in the region, knowing the attacks of September 11 are to come just a decade after America declares victory at Blood and Gifts' end. KGB agent Gromov hits one of the play's most telling notes, lamenting that the Soviet Union had fallen into its own Vietnam by refusing to learn from the United States' mistakes a decade earlier, even as we're acutely aware of the quagmire we've now returned to in Afghanistan.

Nick Bowling's immersive staging and a strong cast of 14 keep us following the various threads with relative ease. If anything weighs down the forward momentum, it's Rogers's dives into his fictional characters' personal lives. The way Warnock, Gromov and Craig (Raymond Fox), a British MI6 operative, trade stories about their wives and children back home is presumably meant to humanize these agents, yet their fictional family lives feel extraneous aside the real and very recent world-shaping they're engaged in.

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