It’s clear why Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 story was a best seller and popular film. It has charm, brutality, politics (just enough for context), bigotry, a helluva moral, and a bittersweet ending. Not having read the book, the tale unfolds for me with interest and empathy until ¾ of the way in when a second violent act is telegraphed (the first is a shocker), then picks up again with a slight lag despite high drama. Even Amir Arison (as Amir) who is onstage (narrating and playing both child and adult) throughout seems to flag.
Faran Tahir (Baba), Amir Arison (Amir)
Amir (Arison), a Pashtan, grows up in a big house on his father, Baba’s (Faran Tahir), estate in Afghanistan. His best friend Hassan (a terrific, touchingly innocent Eric Sirakian who also plays Hassan’s son in Act II), born the year Amir’s mother died, was midwived and milk fed by the same woman. The boy’s first word was “Amir.” Though Hassan can neither read nor write and lives in a mud hut with his father Ali (Evan Zes), Baba’s loyal servant for 40 years, he’s treated with kindness and attention beyond class. (Ali and Hassan are of the persecuted Hazara minority.) The two boys are bound. Faran Tahir is wonderful as Baba, dignified and stern, credibly wretched when circumstances grow beyond his control, and, at last, grateful.
Amir is not the son his father wants. He writes poetry and reads instead of playing soccer. Spoiled and timid, the boy doesn’t stick up for himself (or Hassan) when a local bully (Amir Malaklou- who could be more malevolent) provokes. “He’s not my friend, he’s my servant,” Amir declares. (It’s often difficult to like the protagonist as this emotional mindset rules.)
Amir Arison (Amir) and the company
The only way to earn Baba’s respect is to win a kite fighting contest. (The kites are wonderful, delicate, fluttery.) He partners with Hassan who’s the best kite runner (retriever) in the area and wins. After the event, the bully catches up with Hassan. He’s savage. Amir watches, then runs away too cowardly to help. At age 12, the incident becomes an axis on which Amir’s life turns, motivating and affecting everything. His behavior is painful to watch.
Servants and masters are torn apart partly by Amir, partly by political shift. (Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan; the Taliban.) He and Baba are smuggled out in 1981 and land in San Francisco cheaply indicated by brightly costumed denizens declaring American, cultural flash-points, the one crass moment in the play. The young man happily adapts, his father not so much. There’s charm here and humor. Amir eventually meets and marries Soraya (Azita Ghanizada) who has her own parental issues (Houshang Touzie effectively plays her rigid father) without sharing his burden of guilt. He becomes a writer.
Soraya (Azita Ghanizada) , Amir Arison (Amir)
At this point Afghanistan comes back into the “hero’s” life with a request from an important former mentor (Dariush Kashani). He flies back only to discover the lies Baba and the mentor have guarded. Presented with a mission of mercy, Amir again tries to squirm out of it, but is shamed into taking on the responsibility. It necessitates traveling through dangerous Taliban controlled territory to Kabul. An almost fatal encounter with the past leaves him, on the way to redemption, with a new problem and facing more violence. Hope ends the scenario.
Amir Arison has a lot on his shoulders. He mostly carries this off but oh for a “refresh” button in the second act. We buy his conflicted childhood and apprehensive courtship. Later trials seem less fully inhabited.
Soraya (Azita Ghanizada) , Amir Arison (Amir), Eric Sirakian (Hassan), Houshang Touzie (Sorya’s father)
Director Giles Croft does a splendid job of integrating purveyors of sound with dramatization. The contest is as vivid as two-handed emotional moments. Parentheses – being smuggled, the flea market are well manifest. Actors are given time and space to get there. Violence could be scarier, however. (Fight Director Philip D’Orleans)
All in all an affecting piece that could go further.
Not having read the book, I can’t speak to adaptation, but the script (Matthew Spangler) is economic and deft.
Cultural Advisor/Script Consultant Humaira Ghilzai oversees portions of the play spoken in Farsi. Though much is untranslated, we know what’s going on and are embedded in context. Onstage table player Salar Nadar and intermittent actors with Tibetan prayer bowls (which emit a high hum when rubbed circularly on the inside) and schwirrbogen (making a wood and string whirring sound) create immensely evocative accompaniment. (Composer Jonathan Girling; Sound Design- Drew Baumohl)
Barney George’s set is comprised of a vert ramp /skateboard track that creates higher and lower positioning but seems to have no other rationale. What looks like a jagged fence becomes city buildings with projection. Two drapes of cloth with projected pattern drop down, indicating an interior. (Projection design William Simpson) Only when one drape appears with a loose outdoor watercolor painting is the heart of the piece epitomized. George’s costuming is just right.
Charles Balfour’s lighting design is symbiotic.
Opening in a Broadway venue, albeit the smaller Helen Hayes, is a curious decision. This is an intimate piece and might’ve run quite awhile without the expense.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Amir Arison (Amir), Eric Sirakian (Hassan)
The Kite Runner
Based on the book by Khaled Hosseini
Adapted by Matthew Spangler
Directed by Giles Croft
The Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th St.
Through October 30, 2022