Theater review by Adam Feldman
Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul is a collaborator’s tragedy. Set in 2013, as the U.S. is reducing its presence in Afghanistan, the play unfolds in the middle-class Kabul home of Afiya (Marjat Neshat) and Jawid (Mattico David). A seamstress and tailor, they earn money by making military uniforms for the brutal Taliban, which is rising back to power; that’s how they can afford the large flat-screen television in their otherwise simple living room, but it is also how they avoid suspicion as they hide Afiya’s brother, Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez), who has lived with them in secret for four months. Taroon is on the reverse side of the collaboration coin: Having worked with the Americans as a translator, he is now a hunted man who can’t risk going out even to see his wife and newborn son, and who waits in vain for a message from a former U.S. contact.
Too little attention is paid to locals caught in the crossfire of American military actions abroad, and Selling Kabul puts a valuable spotlight on their plight as it investigates questions of loyalty and responsibility. Its characters, including a chatty neighbor named Leyla (a vivid Francis Benhamou), are compellingly drawn—with the possible exception of Taroon, who seems callower and rasher than he should—and Tyne Rafaeli’s production evokes a proper sense of the danger that might descend on them at any moment. The lighting, by Jen Schriever and Alex Fetchko, and sound, by Lee Kinney, make strong contributions to this environment of dread.
Formally, Selling Kabul is a thriller that hews to the classical tragic unities: It takes place in 95 minutes of real time, in a single location, with many key events occurring offstage. This adds to the play’s suspense, but the compression is not fully successful; credibility questions arise, and the pacing is sometimes at odds with the action. By the end, the play verges uncomfortably on melodrama. What it sometimes lacks in finesse, however, it arguably makes up in urgency. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021 has been criticized on strategic grounds, but Selling Kabul stages the question in starkly human terms. So many people, there and here, are still waiting to get the message.
Selling Kabul. Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Sylvia Khoury. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. With Marjan Neshat, Francis Benhamou, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Mattico David. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.