Early in J.T. Rogers’ “Blood and Gifts,” the characters remark that war is like a game of chess. One should never become too attached to any one piece. However, the rest of the play proves that the shadowy figures manipulating the chessboard in war are, in fact, deeply attached to each other. This fascinating, recent history play is rife with precarious relationships, promises both kept and broken, and of course, “gifts,” given with dangerous, lasting repercussions. Brilliantly acted and beautifully staged, La Jolla Playhouse’s “Blood and Gifts” is an intelligent, fast-moving piece not to be missed by theater enthusiasts and history lovers alike.
Set between 1981 and 1991, the play’s focus is the Soviet War in Afghanistan, particularly the covert role of the U.S. in the war. Our main character and the play’s connecting thread across shifting locations and time is Jim Warnock (Kelly AuCoin), an American CIA operative sent to Pakistan to negotiate weapons supply for Afghan resistance groups. AuCoin carries the brunt of the show in an admirable, strong performance. A feat of endurance, he is onstage for nearly the entire play, yet never seems to break a sweat. After all, his character Jim is the cool, collected agent who plays smart and wants to do the right thing. Then again, all of the shrewdly intelligent men in this play want to do the “right” thing.
Simon Craig (Daniel Pearce), a British spy who is a regular source of comic relief and anything but the usual James Bond type, joins Jim in the sticky negotiations with the obstinate, Pakistani Colonel Afridi (Amir Arison). Meanwhile, Dmitri Gromov (Triney Sandoval), a seemingly friendly Soviet spy, keeps “coincidentally” running into Jim in Pakistan. While Dmitri’s self-referencing, “Russian” humor produces laughs, his unwarranted knowledge about Jim and Jim’s past prove that danger inherently lurks everywhere in this play.
More formidable and unknowable yet is Abdullah Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan), the Pashtun leader of an Afghan resistance group. Abdullah professes to keep some secrets strictly between himself and God, regardless of the close relationship he forms with Jim over several years’ work together.
In spite of the dire political situations happening in the play as airstrikes boom in the distance, the show is also funny — darkly so. Recurrent reminders of the lives the characters lead outside of the war zone humanize them and soften the militaristic focus of the play. Wives and daughters, not present onstage but often spoken of, are symbols for everything the men strive to protect. Consequently, the play both is and isn’t about politics; it chooses instead to foreground more personal themes about trust, friendship, sacrifice, and loyalty.
“Blood and Gifts” is not a show for readily wandering minds. The action of the play happens in snappy dialogue. Snooze for a moment and you’ll miss a major plot point. Most won’t have a problem staying engaged in this suspenseful show, though.
Director Lucie Tiberghien, who worked on several readings of the piece during its development, has sculpted a fluid, smooth theatrical experience that appeals to the eyes as well as the intellect. Occasionally stunning visual stage pictures remind us that we are watching an expertly crafted production. That the set is an evocative, functional piece of the production without overwhelming the concentrated space of the intimate Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre is a testament to designer Kris Stone’s talent.