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Selling Kabul, the tight, propulsive play by Sylvia Khoury at InterAct Theatre Company, opens with the birth of a new baby. It quickly becomes clear, however, that the occasion is far from joyous.
Taroon (Raz Ayer), the child’s father, cannot be with his wife at the hospital for the delivery. Instead, he moves between the living room and a coat closet in an apartment rented by his sister, Afiya (Awesta Zarif), and her husband, Jawid (Ahsan Ali). Amid the first withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2013, Taroon, a former translator, has a target on his back—as does anyone in his orbit, right down to his newborn child.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2022, Selling Kabul considers the human cost of occupation and endless war. Khoury wraps a geopolitical thriller in the guise of a family drama, and the result is as thought-provoking as it is tensely unnerving.
As the walls of Dirk Durossette’s scenic design close in on the characters, they all must consider the choices they’ve made to survive in an inscrutable society. A true believer in the promise of America, Taroon holds onto hope that his one-time colleagues will provide safe passage for his family despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Afiya and Jawid, who own a tailor shop that provides uniforms to the Taliban, wrestle with their complicity in a system that puts their brother’s life in danger. Everyone is a collaborator, and everyone reckons with the risk that carries from all sides.
Khoury’s script provides no easy answers to its moral questions: every decision feels as dubious as it is understandable. And although the taut writing provides all the anxiety-inducing suspense one would expect from an action film, the snappy structure never strays from the central themes of fear and oppression that drive every move these desperate people make.
Jude Sandy’s production builds the tension to a fever pitch over 90 unbroken minutes, with the unfolding story presented in real-time. It’s rare to witness a dead-silent audience hanging on the edge of their seats at a new play these days, but the crowd at the performance I attended sat rapt and remained focused, alternately excited by the work’s friction and stirred by its message.
The actors—who also include Lois Abdelmalek as a sympathetic but suspicious neighbor—do a superb job communicating contradictory emotional states, moving from ambiguity to anger and back to genuine tenderness. Zarif’s Afiya emerges as the play’s conflicted center, a woman who understands how to survive in a repressive world yet still chafes at what it requires of her soul. Ayer blends moral righteousness with an almost childlike sense of disappointment at the world’s lack of fairness. Toward the end of the play, Ali delivers a wrenching monologue that captures Jawid’s disgust with his own pragmatic life choices.
Ryk Lewis’s sharp sound design adds to the play’s sense of unease, with bustling city noise that gives way to a room-encompassing silence. The lighting, by Lindsay Stevens, alternates similarly between harsh reality and dreamy hope. Selling Kabul ultimately ends on a redemptive note, but not without weighing the price of imperialism. By telling the stories of the people affected by politics, Khoury renders a portrait of a country and a culture that is immediate and timeless.
What, When, Where
Selling Kabul. By Sylvia Khoury, directed by Jude Sandy. $15-$35. Through November 19, 2023, at InterAct’s Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 568-8079 or interacttheatre.org.
The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible space with private, all-gender restrooms. There will be a reduced-capacity, mask-required performance of Selling Kabul on Friday, November 10, at 7pm.
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