Warlords, spooks and patsies are the chief players in J.T. Rogers’s “Blood and Gifts,” the chilling and utterly riveting drama that opened yesterday in New York.
Set mostly in Pakistan between 1981 and 1991, the play follows the course of U.S. covert operations after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It’s a chess game played out on a global board, but the stories, and the consequences, are intimate and searing.
James Warnock, a Central Intelligence Agency operative fresh from failure in Iran, arrives at the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan. Awaiting him is his Soviet counterpart, Dmitri Gromov, friendly competitor in an increasingly deadly high-stakes game. Also at hand is Simon Craig of MI6, Margaret Thatcher’s envoy in the service of Reagan-era geopolitical adventurism.
Warnock aligns himself with Abdullah Khan, a warlord he believes to be trustworthy and less radical than others the CIA is backing. Their alliance is at the heart of “Blood and Gifts,” as pressures from Washington, family and his own conscience sink Warnock ever more deeply into a conflict fast growing beyond anyone’s control.
The lurid aftermath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascent still haunts him as Warnock insinuates himself into the quicksand of Khan’s mission. By the end, core alliances will have shifted and the question of who were the captains, who the pawns in this lethal tournament is left devastatingly open. Even more devastating, of course, is how open the question remains. Quagmire, anyone?
Michael Yeargan’s settings for the fast-shifting action are simply but precisely suggestive, as are Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting.
Rogers weaves together conversations in Russian, Pashto, Farci and Arabic without ever losing clarity or focus. He owes much to his director, Bartlett Sher, who has staged the highly populated play in Lincoln Center Theater’s small Mitzi E. Newhouse space, as a kind of forum, in which actors often sit on benches as the action unfolds.
The company is outstanding, particularly Jeremy Davidson as the beleaguered Warnock; Jefferson Mays, in a spectacular turn as the acquiescent British agent; Michael Aronov as the Russian spy; and Bernard White as Khan, a warlord with a human face. Perhaps that’s Rogers’s greatest achievement of all.
Patinkin and LuPone may be Broadway royalty, but “An Evening” is a torpid affair. Their voices are not complementary and when they hammed up Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” I found myself wishing for an onstage avalanche.
Their best moments came in the solos: Patinkin, 58, does a loose-limbed vaudeville turn in “The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me- Blues” from “Follies,” while LuPone, 62, tugs at the heartstrings with “In Buddy’s Eyes” from the same show. The accompaniment, by music director Paul Ford on piano and bassist John Beal, is tasteful to the point of bloodlessness.
They’re somewhat long in the tooth to be singing Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow, from “Carousel,” in a medley that takes up a good chunk of the second act. And it’s a little disconcerting to hear LuPone -- who has made a career of playing tough cookies -- sing “A Cockeyed Optimist” from “South Pacific.”
A dance staged by Ann Reinking for the couple wheeling about in office chairs conjured the image of Sunday afternoon at a retirement home. Probably not what they’re aiming for.
Through Jan. 13, 2012, at the Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. *1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.