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THEATER REVIEW: La Jolla Playhouse's West Coast premiere of “Blood And Gifts”

We all understand great big, bloody public wars leaving death and devastation in their wake. But playwright J.T. Rogers is more interested in those little niggling covert operations – the non-war wars – that seem to be more de rigueur these days.

Rogers’ “Blood And Gifts” investigates the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s (intended to replace a leader the Russians regarded as U.S.-leaning), which brought CIA operatives, covert operations, the titular “gifts” and heightened political division to that country.

It also brought unintended consequences the U.S. is dealing with still.

“Blood And Gifts” is in its West Coast premiere through July 8 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum. Directing is Lucie Tiberghien.

Center stage is CIA operative Jim Warnock (Kelly AuCoin), newly arrived to aid the Afghan rebels with “gifts” – mostly sacks of money and weapons from other countries (Warnock’s charge is “deniability first and foremost”) – from his base in Pakistan.

Warnock finds he must play a delicate game with several unsavory locals, chief among them the corrupt Colonel Afridi (Amir Arison), a Pakistani intelligence operative, cool and calculating.

Also on the ground in Pakistan is Russian emissary Dmitri Gromov (Triney Sandoval) whose deceptively friendly demeanor is reminiscent of the Russian ambassador in Lee Blessing’s fine play “A Walk In The Woods.”

Another important character is experienced (and often tipsy) British spy Simon Craig (Daniel Pearce), who has seen it all and has a witty and/or withering comment about everything.

Warnock’s biggest problem is deciding which Afghan warlord to back. Afridi recommends hardline Islamist Gulbiddin Hekmatyar (not seen), but Warnock picks secularist Abdullah Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan, who gives the role a bit of nobility). Khan’s much younger second in command Saeed (Babak Tafti), a pop culture devotee who serves as translator, injects humor with his middle-of-the-night plea for a boom box and recordings by Duran Duran and Olivia Newton-John.

The second act shifts the action to Washington, where participants must play the tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear game to ensure continued U.S. funds and weapons. Truth is in short supply in both countries, and Rogers takes no sides.

In one of the play’s best scenes, Warnock meets his boss Walter Barnes (the icy Donald Sage MacKay), a smooth operator who knows how to accomplish his goals.

“Blood And Gifts” has the ring of authenticity, and Rogers’ wondrous facility for dialogue and characterization (and a sterling cast) carry the play, though the two and a half hour runtime seems a bit much. I found myself growing weary of the play in direct proportion to the increasing exhaustion I feel about this exasperating, costly and seemingly fruitless form of political gamesmanship.

Perhaps that was Rogers’ intent.

The details

“Blood and Gifts” plays through July 8 at the Mandell Weiss Forum at UCSD, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call (858) 550-1010 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.