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‘Selling Kabul’ Review: Trapped in a War, and an Apartment

todayDecember 7, 2021 6

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A structural marvel, “Selling Kabul” can sometimes sound a little hollow at its core. Khoury sketches personalities for the characters — rounded out by Francis Benhamou as Leyla, a chatterbox neighbor — quickly and deftly. We immediately understand Taroon’s impetuousness, Jawid’s equivocation, Leyla’s bright anguish, Afiya’s fretful good sense. (Afiya is the play’s moral center; Neshat is its standout.) But these people mainly serve as devices to urge the drama toward crisis and their speech can seem stilted, as when Taroon reacts to the birth of his son: “He’ll think me a coward. Too scared to show my face in the light of day.”

This would matter less in another play, located in an environment more familiar to American audiences, or if we had more plays, particularly plays by writers of Middle Eastern descent, set in this region. But we don’t have many. In terms of what has played in New York, only “Homebody/Kabul,” “Blood and Gifts” and “The Great Game: Afghanistan” come to mind, works by white British and American writers. At its best, theater can bring the faraway very close, personalize the abstract.

Acknowledging that too few of us stateside will ever understand the civilian toll of conflicts like those in Afghanistan, I wish Khoury, a playwright of French and Lebanese descent, and Rafaeli had done more to make these characters feel fully human and not just wheels in a beautiful machine. Or maybe this is simply my own regret talking — my memory of seeing the images of the chaos at Kabul airport during America’s botched August exit and realizing that I should have been paying a lot more attention. But that’s the thing about a forever war waged a world away: I didn’t have to. It’s unfair to want “Selling Kabul” to have made me.

So enjoy the play instead as a nimble entertainment and a first-rate workout for your sympathetic nervous system — if I still bit my nails I would have no nails left now. And appreciate, too, that while “Selling Kabul” could have ended tragically, it instead offers some morsel of hope to all of its characters, even if it perverts reason to keep that hope alive. (Honestly, there are a few other logical discrepancies, as when fastidious characters suddenly leave the door open. But when you’re tempted to yell, “For the love of all that’s holy, lock the door!” at the stage, clearly a play has got you.)

After the lights come back on, you will find an insert in your program with information about the International Refugee Assistance Project, a charity that offers legal aid to people in Taroon’s situation, a way to make that hope more real. Maybe that’s a test of a play, not how well it works within a theater’s narrow walls, but how much it makes you want to act beyond them.

Selling Kabul
Through Dec. 23 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

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