Jeremy Davidson, Jefferson Mays, and Michael Aronov
in Blood and Gifts
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Jeremy Davidson, Jefferson Mays, and Michael Aronov
in Blood and Gifts
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Playwright J.T. Rogers pulls back the curtain on America's covert involvement in Afghanistan's war with Russia in his compelling new play, Blood and Gifts, playing at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. Directed with understated theatricality by Bartlett Sher, the production, both swirling and static, is filled with a host of fine performances.

Theatergoers will find that it may take a while to get their bearings in the play, which centers on James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson), a CIA operative in Pakistan on a mission to aid the Afghans in their efforts to beat the Soviets. On behalf of the U.S. government, he can supply rebels with arms, but only in secret, working through Inter-Services Intelligence, which is run by Pakistani Colonel Afridi (Gabriel Ruiz), who has an agenda of his own in the efforts.

More upfront is Warnock's ally, British secret service agent Simon Craig (Jefferson Mays), even as the ultimate goals of KGB agent Dmitri Gromov (Michael Aronov) are tantalizingly elusive.

Blood and Gifts follows these men over the course of 10 years -- along with Afghan warlord Abdullah Kahn (Bernard White) -- as a diplomatic chess game unfolds, where loyalties shift in surprising and often discomfiting ways. In the process, Rogers reveals how the men each pay a high price in their personal lives for their unyielding commitment to their work.

Their struggles are brought to life with an often immaculate eye for detail and terrific precision, particularly by Mays. He not only reveals surprising depths to the milquetoast Englishman, but also lands each of the character's cutting barbs to hilarious effect.

Equally impressive are White's turn, which is infused with a terrific sense of dignity and ultimately deep humanity as his dealings with the Americans takes its toll on him and his family, and Aronov's performance, which carries a grand mix of gregariousness and menace.

As the man buffeted by these characters, Davidson turns in a ruggedly tweedy performance that initially seems strangely disconnected. But before the play has ended, audiences have come to realize why his turn has been crafted to stay at an emotional distance.

In addition, when the action shifts briefly to the U.S., the production boasts a trio of superb cameo performances from Andrew Weems as a political speechwriter, Jon Procaccino as Warnock's pragmatic and politically shrewd superior, and Robert Hogan as a Southern senator who carries the swing vote that will escalate America's involvement in the Afghan-Soviet conflict.

There's a certain Shakespearean quality to the play, where themes of procreation and sacrifice intertwine like verbal leitmotifs, that is mirrored in Michael Yeargan's handsomely spare scenic design, which is backed with a gray wall where often an almost Medieval representation of a mountainous landscape is presented (lit with painterly skill by Donald Holder).

It's an uncomfortably beautiful depiction of a treacherous terrain that Americans have come to know all too well from the headlines. And, before the play has ended, Rogers has painted a chilling portrait of why this distant region continues to dominate the consciousness not only of the U.S., but the globe.