There are those comparing the espionage narrative that drives Blood and Gifts (at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre) with the work of novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. And while those two worthies—and their most famous heir apparent, David Cornwall (better known by his pen name, John Le Carré)—are certainly hovering, I think the writer most evoked by playwright J.T. Rogers’ script is the equally gifted but somewhat less celebrated David Ignatius. For one thing, Mr. Ignatius is an American writer, like Mr. Rogers (the others are British). For another, Mr. Ignatius, as both journalist (he writes for the Washington Post) and novelist specializes in the Middle East as an espionage arena. Finally, Ignatius has a sense of humor that is particularly American in its wry mordancy.
What all the writers share—including, happily, Mr. Rogers—is a sense of authenticity. Where Mr. Rogers is unique is being the one who is not per se an insider (though his father was a political scientist).
The outline of the play is simple enough, or should I say, deceptively simple enough. American agent James Warnock (Jeremy Davidson) has been tasked with creating an alliance with a group of Afghans who are anti-Soviet freedom fighters, said alliance involving the sale of weapons. It seems like a fairly straightforward relationship to forge; but the freedom fighters are not necessarily friends of the military government run by Colonel Afridi (Gabriel Ruiz), and the tenuous relationship with the Afghani fighters may not be good for the “special relationship” between the US and England, as personified by British diplomat Simon Craig (Jefferson Mays); and maybe the Russians, as personified by diplomat Dmitri Gromov (Michael Aronov) are only the enemies for now. (Rogers also has a CIA supervisor character named Walter Barnes [brilliantly played by John Procacino], a crusty old timer with an unsentimental view of the business and a mordantly funny way of expressing it. He represents a time-honored trope—the deskbound pro who sees the angles in all their geometrical complexity and subtlety [think Le Carré’s George Smiley or Brian Freemantle’s Charlie Muffin]; and as it happens he’s also very reminiscent of an Ignatius character named Hoffman, who turns up as a supporting player [albeit always with a different first name] in each of the novels.)
Though there are a lot of guns on display in Blood and Gifts, none of them go off, for to actually have one onstage character shoot another in this circle of operatives would create clean boundaries, and this is an environment of insidious and unpredictable ambiguity, in which not only is it perilously difficult to read the signals; it’s just as intricate and elusive an art to know precisely what signals you’re sending.
This tight little intrigue is directed with a tautness to match by Bartlett Sher, played to perfection by the ensemble, and may be the best play of the season so far. Nice to have a real “thinker”—that can also make you feel, however unsettlingly—every now and again…
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