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Review: Selling Kabul Depicts the Forever War Between Freedom and Safety

Sylvia Khoury's latest drama takes us to the hideout of an Afghan translator targeted by the Taliban.

Dario Ladani Sanchez stars in Sylvia Khoury's Selling Kabul, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

In August, Americans were horrified by the images of Afghan civilians, desperate to escape the advancing Taliban, running after military transports and clinging to the landing gear. What fear could provoke a person to take such suicidal risks? Sylvia Khoury answers that question in Selling Kabul, her white-knuckle drama now making its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons.

It takes place entirely in a dark apartment. This is the hideout of Taroon (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a former translator for the US military in Afghanistan who is now on a Taliban hit list. Until his visa comes through, it is a bad idea for him to step outside. But this sheltering-in-place becomes unbearable when his sister, Afiya (Marjan Neshat), returns with the news that Taroon's wife, Bibi, has just given birth. She also informs him that strange men were at the hospital looking for him — and getting rough with Bibi. His impulse is to run to her, but Afiya insists that he stay.

Dario Ladani Sanchez plays Taroon, and Marjan Neshat plays Afiya in the off-Broadway debut of Sylvia Khoury's Selling Kabul.
(© Joan Marcus)

"That's all I want, Taroon. To keep you safe," says Afiya, who uses that word at least 11 more times over the course of this 90-minute slow-boil thriller. Afiya shares this apartment with her husband, Jawid (Mattico David), a tailor who sews uniforms for the Taliban partially to deflect suspicion away from the family. Their MO is all about risk mitigation, but Taroon has already taken many risks translating under fire in Helmand. What's another to see his new son and ailing wife?

While this story about an Afghan translator abandoned by his American friends might seem ripped-from-the-headlines topical, it's about something larger: A sister who insists that her brother stay home, and a brother who would rather die than spend his days locked in a closet (where he hides when guests come around). This story isn't just about Afghanistan. It's about us, and the philosophical divide that Covid has laid bare.

Our first clue: Every character speaks in the familiar cadence of the American upper-middle class. Playing Afiya's neighbor, Leyla, the very funny (until she's not) Francis Benhamou sports a distinctive vocal fry battered in casual sarcasm. She quips, "Bruce Willis would be shocked, the hours he's spent in this apartment." She's referring to the action movies Taroon used to watch there with his army buddy, Jeff, and she's using that memory to probe Afiya for information on his whereabouts (nosy and suspicious, Leyla is the Kabuli Gladys Kravitz).

Marjan Neshat plays Afiya, Mattico David plays Jawid, and Francis Benhamou plays Leyla in Selling Kabul.
(© Joan Marcus)

As Afiya, Neshat remains guarded and even prickly. Her anxiety radiates from the stage as she remains laser-focused on her brother's safety. Partially driven by regret (for not having a child of her own, for not applying her education toward a life abroad), she is hell-bent on getting at least this right. As Jawid, David delivers a quietly heartbreaking portrayal of a man acutely aware of his wife's disappointment. And in a performance that is at turns fiery, petulant, and deeply sympathetic, Sanchez portrays a man lost in the border region between bravery and stupidity. All of them are likely to remind you of people you know.

This familiarity of character and diction was also present in Khoury's Pakistan drone drama, Against the Hillside and (more effectively) her Syrian refugee play Power Strip. I suspect that this choice is not some exercise in we're-all-the-same liberal universalism, but an honest attempt to force New York audiences to picture themselves in these circumstances. And thanks to a supremely unnerving production from director Tyne Rafaeli, it succeeds.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set feels surprisingly cramped for an apartment with no chairs or tables, helping to convey Taroon's cabin fever. A flatscreen TV and a large air conditioner speak to the relative privilege of this family. Through the veiled windows of the apartment, Jen Schriever and Alex Fetchko capture the retreating daylight and growing dread of night. Montana Levi Blanco's authentic costumes place these characters firmly in Kabul, as does Lee Kinney's extraordinarily well-calibrated sound design: A crying baby down the hall, the call to prayer from a neighborhood mosque, and the sound of a passing truck all contribute to a tense staging that keeps us on edge.

Mattico David and Marjan Neshat star in Sylvia Khoury's Selling Kabul, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

If Khoury can be faulted for anything, it is in the vaults of plausibility she undertakes in presenting the mounting stakes of her drama: Are we really to believe that in a little apartment with paper-thin walls, Taroon cannot hear Afiya and Jawid arguing about what to do with him?

But if you can take those leaps with her (this top-notch production makes it more than possible), you will discover the gut-punch power of this play. Like Sophie's Choice, Selling Kabul asks us to imagine how we might salvage some semblance of dignity (and maybe even happiness) out of an impossible situation. Considering how horrible Americans have been to one another during Covid (a threat that doesn't approach the lethality of being targeted by a terrorist militia), the prognosis doesn't look good.