SELLING KABUL, the current play onstage at Seattle Rep’s Leo K. Theatre could be subtitled “The Play About The Neighbor Who Wouldn’t Leave” but while the play has numerous moments of humor, that facetious addition wouldn’t be an honest indicator of this tense and very timely new play by Sylvia Khoury.
Although the play premiered in 2019 and is set in 2013 at a time when the U.S. began withdrawing large numbers of troupes from Afghanistan after a decade of occupying that country following 9/11, it also hauntingly reminds us of more recent events in Afghanistan when the Taliban retook the country and the last of the U.S. troupes left in 2021. The play centers on Taroon, a young man who served as an interpreter for the U.S. who is now under a death sentence from the Taliban for having aided the enemy. The U.S. soldier that Taroon worked with had promised to help him leave Afghanistan but so far no visa has arrived to allow him to escape. Meanwhile, his wife has just given birth and Taroon is holed up in an apartment belonging to his sister Afiya and brother-in-law Jawid and desperate to go to the hospital to see them but by doing so, he would put all their lives in danger.
The play, set in real time, opens with Taroon alone in the apartment, illicitly watching the big screen television he’s not supposed to be watching when no one else is at home (for fear the neighbors will notice) and desperately trying to get info about the status of a visa as well as awaiting word on his pregnant wife. Eventually, his sister arrives home to tell him he has a healthy baby son but it also seems she could be holding back some information and the siblings argue. Things get more tense when next door neighbor and Afiya’s good friend Leyla pops over for a chat. Taroon has to hide in a cupboard from her while nosy Leyla seems to be settling in for a nice, long visit asking lots of snoopy questions…
What’s so great about Selling Kabul is it manages to pack a lot of information, a lot of intense drama, some comedy, even the mundane banality of hanging out by yourself in your apartment in a taut 90 minutes and with only 4 characters. And, it’s not only through the dialogue itself…we learn a lot about all these characters by just observing their actions and how they behave when they’re with other people, but also in moments when they are onstage by themselves. The playwright isn’t afraid to allow her characters to be flawed either…Taroon’s selfishness and immaturity is apparent early on when we learn he hasn’t been following the rules imposed by Afiya to keep him (and herself) safe from being caught. And, the title of the play is explained towards the end when Jawid admits that he has made dangerous decisions to be able to afford such luxuries as a big screen TV.
And, while the play starts out quite mundanely to the point it’s a bit slowgoing at first, the intensity ratchets up with each passing minute as new characters, new information and new situations quickly develop. We learn a lot about this family (even characters we never see) and their back stories and their personal connections to each other and the outside world and the geo-politics of life in Kabul, Afghanistan and the role our own govenrment has played in creating that world and how we’ve failed people and allies we left behind.
Sylvia Khoury has written a terrific play that’s engrossing, intelligent, passionate and intense. Veteran Seattle director Valerie Curtis-Newton has done an equally superb job of staging this material with the exceptionally fine cast of actors who inhabit these characters lead by Yousof Sultani as Taroon and Susaan Jamshidi as Afiya. The pair have the central roles and have created a believable, viable onstage relationship as two siblings who constantly bicker but are also passionately care about one another. There’s equally fine support from Barzin Akhavan as Jawid, who is devoted to his wife, and from Fatima Wardak as the nosy neighbor who has a vital role to play in the plot of the play. It’s a strong play with an equally strong ensemble of actors.
It’s also handsomely designed by Lex Marcos (the deliciously claustrophobic apartment set) and the subtle sound designs of D.R. Amromin responisble for a wide variety of background sounds from wailing babies to the sounds of metropolitan Kabul in the background.
Selling Kabul is highly recommended for any theater fan who loves great drama and timely theater about world issues. It’s a gripping thriller with a passionate heart and a solid piece of theater artistry from the entire Seattle Rep team.
All the thumbs up for this one.