The Washington Post
‘Selling Kabul’: More sluggish than sizzling
It’s 2013, and the Americans have reduced their presence in Afghanistan, leaving behind people such as Taroon, an interpreter for the occupiers from the West. Now, in “Selling Kabul,” he’s hiding from the vengeance-seeking Taliban in his sister Afiya’s Kabul flat. With his wife pregnant and the neighbors restive, a miasma of anxious questions arise about the fate of Taroon and the people who help him.
Sometimes, in Signature Theatre’s mounting of Sylvia Khoury’s drama, the wheels grind too sluggishly, and the air in the company’s smaller space, the Ark, begins to feel oppressive. What the work directed by Shadi Ghaheri could use more of is a tension that builds reliably to its nail-biting climax, and deeper insights into its characters. As it is, Taroon (played by Mazin Akar), Afiya (Awesta Zarif ) and the others are enmeshed in a story that attempts little more than a “Homeland”-style series of paranoia-building intrigues.
“Selling Kabul” has a natural hook for anyone with curiosity or regrets or both about how things have devolved for the people of Afghanistan. The media reports about the devastating hardships befalling women, especially, under Taliban rule are heartbreaking. Here,
Khoury prefigures the consequences of the complete U.S. pullout in 2021, focusing on a man whose cooperation has labeled him an enemy of the authoritarian insurgents.
It is, of course, an important topic, worthy of illumination: As the play suggests, Americans need to be more fully apprised of the dire straits of those who want to get out of the country, and can’t.
But we don’t learn much over the murky 105 minutes of “Selling Kabul” about what Taroon did for “Jeff,” the now-vanished American for whom he worked. There are other nagging gaps in the plot, such as the nature of the purported Taliban collaboration of Afiya’s seemingly empathetic husband, Jawid ( Yousof Sultani). Is the play’s title a tip-off ? Is it possible that with the secret police closing in, threatening the security of Jawid and Afiya, Jawid has passed on information about Taroon?
Set designer Tony Cisek realistically lays out Jawid and Afiya’s modest apartment, with a comfy front room strewn with rugs and pillows, and a hall closet big enough for Taroon to stow himself any time nosy neighbor Leyla (Neagheen Homaifar) comes knocking. In the stack of military uniforms piled in a corner and waiting to be mended, Khoury opens a window on the mindless piecework an urbane woman such as Afiya must undertake. Still, we’re left in the dark about the more vital existence she may have had before.
The colorlessness of life under Taliban pressures is certainly a challenging quality to dramatize; in the dangerous circumstances in which Afiya finds herself, Zarif commendably manages to sustain a believable sense of controlled panic, exacerbated when Homaifar’s Leyla overstays her welcome. Sultani conveys Jawid’s warmth and concern for his wife, but somehow his feelings about the threat of having Taroon in his house seem underexplored. As for Taroon himself, Akar offers a nuanced portrayal of a man chafing under his sister’s protectiveness, desperate to reunite with his own (unseen) wife.
The more blanks that theater can fill in, the better, about the precarious fates of hapless souls living with religious fanaticism. “Selling Kabul” would be a richer experience if it could check off a few more.
Selling Kabul, by Sylvia Khoury. Directed by Shadi Ghaheri. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, John D. Alexander; sound, Matt Otto. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through April 2 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.