… here’s the cold war …

Blood and Gifts tells the story of the American thrust for influence in Afghanistan during the cold war through a close look at the lives and adventures of three intelligence officers — one American, one British, and one Russian.  James Warnock, a CIA operative based in the country of our 1980’s ostensible ally, Pakistan, is in charge of organizing covert aid and weapons delivery to Afghan chiefs fighting the Russians.  On hand is his British counterpart, Simon Craig, less idealistic about aiding freedom fighters, and more realistic about power politics.  Both of them are suffering strained relationships with their wives that come with being intelligence officers in distant and dangerous posts on long assignments, as is the guy on the “other side,” the Russian intelligence officer, Dmitri Gromov.

Although “allies” in the 1980’s, the U.S. and Pakistan are in fundamental conflict over control of Afghanistan.  The U.S. aims to fill the anticipated power void that would be left with the Afghan defeat of the Russians while Pakistan is determined itself to take full control over — essentially annex — their neighboring country.  Thus the essential question in the play: which Afghan factions will get the weapons the U.S. is providing to Afghanistan, moderates or extremists?  Will this conflict come down on the U.S. side, in the person of Warnock’s Afghan “asset”, Abdullah Khan, a strong, canny (and as played by Bernard White immensely likable) nationalist and religious moderate?  Or will it be cultural and religious extremist Afghan leaders favorable to Pakistan.  Colonel Afridi, head of Pakistani intelligence, ruthlessly undercuts the American and British relations with Khan in favor of more extreme Afghan elements.

Much of this story of power politics is told through words rather than dramatic action: it’s a talky play, though interesting and sometimes exciting to follow.

The personal lives of Warnock, Craig, and Gromov weave through the story of their intelligence goals and hazardous posts.  Back home, children are born, lost, or go astray.  Wives become impatient.  While he’s a cold war enemy of Warnock and Craig, Gromov faces the same challenges of alienation from his far-off family as the American and the Englishman, a demonstration of their common humanity that includes a grudging understanding of one another — a counterpoint to the large scale issues of power and control.  This was a good direction but it doesn’t quite work: the domestic problems of the intelligence officers are thinly presented and seem obviously inserted to maintain the “human element.”  Craig, charmingly played by Jefferson Mays, and Gromov, in a vivid performance, as well as Khan — whose personal story also plays a roll — are well characterized but the personal dimension is somewhat damped by Warnock, the main character, acted routinely by Jeremy Davidson, a cliché of an American can-do idealist who ultimately can’t do.

Blood and Gifts tells a very important story and is well worth seeing for the history, though dramatically it’s a little flat.  Never mind — because otherwise you’re not likely to be clued in on American foreign policy and actions with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980’ and early ‘90’s which cast great light on current, and very pressing events.  Ah, now I understand something of key importance that was never clear to me — that’s an excellent reason for seeing this play.

Blood and Gifts plays at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, NYC’s Lincoln Center.

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