Far from a great game, the British and American involvement in Afghanistan has been more of a case of sustained blowback.
If there's one main take-away from J.T. Rogers' "Blood and Gifts," an epic, dramatic account of the allies' Afghan misadventures during the fateful 1980s, it's the inevitability of unintended consequences. The motivation of the CIA and MI6 is to manipulate the Soviet-Afghan war, in covert manner. But when you start handing rifles to sympathetic warlords or generals, it's hard to control what they are going to do with them, especially if you don't want to admit anything in the light of day ("deniability," they call that it). The guns that figure in this drama are eminently transferable — to other individuals, to other causes. One minute, the weapons are in service of winning the Cold War. The next, they are arming the likes of Osama bin Laden. That's Afghanistan.
Moreover, and here's the other great theme of "Blood and Gifts," covert wars in the field are waged by imperfect individuals. Individuals develop alliances, people they like, people they don't. They have insecurities that can be manipulated. They might have unhappy spouses. They might, like the British agent Simon Craig, have a drinking problem. And they could well have some bitterness toward a political boss. And thus all these operations are subject to whims not so far removed from the playground, except for the level of firepower.
"Blood and Gifts" arrives in Chicago after acclaimed productions at the National Theatre in London, the Lincoln Center in New York and the La Jolla Playhouse in California. This play, which requires a cast of 14, is certainly testing the resources of the TimeLine Theatre, which has literally crammed the action into every last corner of its namesake theater. There is no real dividing line between the lobby and the playing space in Colette Pollard's design for director Nick Bowling's admirably ambitious production.
The savvy conceit here is that the action is unfolding amid a kind of exhibition on the history of this fraught nation and the misadventures of those who would seek to control its fate.
Our main way into the play is through James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane), a talented and somewhat sardonic CIA agent who pursues his craft with an element of self-loathing and wages a constant internal struggle between professional idealism and political cynicism. Kane takes a very neutral, laconic tack here, which would work better for this gifted actor, I think, if it did not seem to be in such a very different style from what is going on around him. Raymond Fox, the equally gifted performer who plays Simon, is much broader and more overtly emotional, and so is Terry Hamilton, who plays a loquacious Soviet. These are all very different men, sure, but you still have to believe they are all in the same room, and in the same play, together.
There are a couple of brilliantly effective scenes, most notably the confrontations between Kane's Warnock and Kareem Bandealy's brilliantly conceived Abdullah Khan, each seeking out a connection, despite the complex web of alliances and betrayals. Indeed, the scenes that you'd think would be the hardest (the handover of weapons and cash to the Afghan fighters) are the most effective. But once the action shifts to Washington, Bowling's show gets trapped. The political figures are overplayed and cartoonish, and the subtlety of the piece gets lost.
This is partly a problem of a script that foregrounds narrative over complex characterization. But the production also needed to guard more against the familiarity of genre. Most short scenes end with a blackout and a burst of what feels like generic spy-show music, with the unintended consequence that the overly clattery and diffuse action seemed to wash over the audience Thursday night, rather than demanding their full engagement. Physically speaking, the very capable Bowling has come up with the kind of counterintuitive, Chicago-style staging the piece needed. But in terms of the tricky storytelling, the teasing out of a complex throughline from the Afghan muddle, there was work left to do.
When: Through July 28
Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $32-42 at 773-281-8463 or timelinetheatre.com