Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 bestselling novel The Kite Runner is the sort of compelling, epic morality tale that spans eras and cultures, depicts friendship and betrayal, loyalty and cowardice, acts of kindness and demonstrations of unspeakable cruelty. With its eye on an all-but-guaranteed redemption, The Kite Runner has an unmistakable allure – equal parts beach read and Serious Literature – that proved irresistible to Hollywood and, now, Broadway.
While the 2012 film adaptation made an early splash with some critics (followed by a backlash over some controversial scenes involving the depiction of child sexual abuse), The Kite Runner, despite its earnest, prestige sheen, got little more than shrugs at awards time. Today it’s remembered mostly for the controversy.
The latest incarnation, adapted by Matthew Spangler, opens tonight at Broadway’s Hayes Theater under the direction of Giles Croft. Despite its heartfelt intentions and some impressive performances, The Kite Runner doesn’t improve in any significant way over The Kite Runner on screen. And it’s a whole lot talkier.
At times seeming more like an elaborately staged reading of the novel – an audio book come to life – than a fully realized play, The Kite Runner tells the story (and “tells” is the operative word) of Amir (winningly played by Amir Arison) over the course of a couple decades. When we first meet him, he’s a child of 1970s Kabul, the sensitive, poetry-loving son of a gruff, wealthy Pashtun patriarch (Faran Tahir). Baba, the father, loyally employs a longtime servant who is of the largely disdained Hazara ethnic group. The servant’s young son, Hassan (Eric Sirakian), is raised almost – almost – as a brother to Amir, and while the gulf between their social statuses is never far from mind, the two boys spend long hours, months and years of their childhoods as tight as siblings.
At least, that is, in the privacy of their home and gardens. In the neighborhood at large, the class distinction is more carefully followed. When a group of neighborhood bullies begins to target Hassan over his ethnicity, Amir can offer only the most superficial protection. And even that vanishes on the day that would change their lives forever.
The day in question begins in victory: young Amir has won a big neighborhood kite contest. No, not the kind of kite flying challenge remembered by American boys of the 1950s. The Kabul contest is take-no-prisoners combat, hands bloodied by gripped strings as the kites pick each other off in mid-air like some WWI biplane dogfight. Amir’s hardwon victory even raises the boy’s worthiness in the eyes of his father. For a while anyway.
But something else happens on that day that makes a mockery of Amir’s newfound self-perceived manliness. After Hassan runs off to retrieve the defeated kite set loose by Amir’s skills – Hassan is the kite runner of the title, loyally and honorably retrieving this little war’s spoils for his young master – that group of local toughs, headed by the sadistic Assef (Amir Malaklou) corners him in an alley and sexually brutalizes him. Unbeknownst to the traumatized Hassan, Amir has silently witnessed the rape, afraid to speak up in defense of his lifelong friend.
Overcome by a guilt he can not express, Amir ends his only friendship – today we’d say he ghosts Hassan – and, determined to expunge all trace of his betrayal, plants a stolen watch and money on Hassan in hopes that Abba will send the servants packing. Although Abba can’t bear to exile this favored boy – even those who haven’t read the book should be picking up on some heavy foreshadowing here – the servants choose to leave.
From there, The Kite Runner skips a bit more quickly through the years – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sends Amir and Baba off to San Francisco, where Amir eventually meets Soraya (Azita Ghanizada), another Afghan exile, and the two fall in love and eventually marry. First though, Soraya recites an account of her own troubled past in on of the play’s many discursive side-stories. As characters clash, get sick, die and talk about all of it, The Kite Runner begins to suggest that playwright Spangler just couldn’t bring himself to leave one page of the novel page unused.
Finally, redemption is offered Amir when word comes that he has a chance to make good on that long-ago betrayal: His old friend has a young son who has been kidnapped as a “Dancing Boy” by a particularly cruel Taliban fighter. In just one of the tale’s contrivances, the new villain isn’t so new.
Despite the play’s credulity-stretching, Arison does fine work as Amir, moving from boyhood to manhood convincingly, and Tahir’s Baba is hateful and relenting in equal measure, ultimately creating a sympathetic figure. The bully-turned-Taliban Assef may be a one-dimensional monster, but Malaklou plays it to the hilt. Ghanizada has the more difficult task of giving the mostly sidelined Soraya depth. She succeeds here and there.
Director Croft enlivens some scenes with ensemble movement – a traditional Muslim wedding (successfully) and an ’80s-era Frisco disco flashback (not so much) – but mostly lets these good actors do the talking, and talking. Barney George’s convincing period and culturally distinctive costumes serve the story well (Humaira Ghilzai is the production’s Cultural Advisor & Script Consultant), but his modest set design – mostly bare stage, picket-fence-style skylines looming in background silhouette – only contribute to the staged reading vibe.
The tale inevitably rests on the shoulders of actor Arison, and while he handles the twists and turns and sweetnesses and betrayals adeptly enough, his ultimate empowerment via a sudden, heretofore unexpressed interest in religion is neither credible nor dramatically satisfying. It’s barely even poetic justice. The boy he wronged all those years ago is not the boy he saves. His newfound heroism may not be too little, but it’s more than a little late.
The Kite Runner is produced by Victoria Lang, Ryan Bogner and Tracey McFarland of Broadway & Beyond Theatricals, Jayne Baron Sherman, Hunter Arnold, and in association with UK Productions Ltd. and Flying Entertainment Ltd/Kilimanjaro Group Ltd. Daryl Roth is the Executive Producer. Originally produced by Nottingham Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, The Kite Runner opens tonight at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater and runs through Oct. 30.
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