As I took my seat at the Helen Hayes Theater last week, I had to wonder whether my fellow theatergoers – masked in accordance with the theater’s new policy for certain performances – quite knew what they were in for. Perhaps they had read Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel or seen the 2007 movie. But even if they had, they probably didn’t remember much of it and were in for a shock.
I further hoped they were not there for an uplifting evening of theater, as anyone who was should steer clear of the Hayes.
You see, “The Kite Runner” is the story of Amir (Amir Arison), a well-to-do Pashtun Afghan boy in Kabul who, growing up, is best friends with the son of his father’s Hazara servant Ali (an obliging Evan Zee), a boy named Hassan (played brilliantly by Eric Sirakian). Amir lives alone with his father (magnificently portrayed by Faran Tahir), known by the honorific title Agha Sahib, although Amir calls him “Baba.” Baba is a wealthy philanthropist and iconoclast who tries to carry a dark secret to the grave. Fittingly, parts of the dialogue are spoken in Farsi but, even without either supertitles or subtitles, it was still possible to follow what was transpiring.
Mathew Spangler’s moving stage adaptation of the novel retains its simplicity and time-shifting capabilities after its transfer from the West End to Broadway.
Similar to the brilliant score by zitherist Anton Karas for the 1949 film noir “The Third Man,” “The Kite Runner” is largely driven by the varying rhythms and notes of the tabla player, Salar Nader, who sits with his instruments on stage and guides the show along, often gazing thoughtfully at the actors nearby.
Meanwhile, Amir and Hassan enjoy adventures on his father’s estate and both enjoy kite flying, albeit a particularly brutal form in which kite flyers coat their kite strings with a sharpened glass like material which they then use to cut the kite strings of others, thereby achieving a “kill.” Once a kite is set loose, so-called kite runners chase after it.
Hassan, it turns out, has a preternatural ability to know where the newly-freed kite will land and the two fly kites together, with Amir controlling the kite and Hassan holding the spool and serving as the kite runner. The day of the big kite-flying championship – which Baba won as a young boy – is a festive event and it’s probably not even necessary to say that Amir and Hassan win, It’s everything that transpires after the day of the kite flying that upends what one might presume would happen in such a story.
Amir, meanwhile, is tormented into adulthood by the guilt of having abandoned Hassan when the latter was attacked by local bully Assaf, in a brilliant performance by Amir Malaklou. Assaf, it turns out, is a crazed sociopath with a hauntingly eerie laugh who makes for an awfully realistic Taliban officer later on in the play and who might have fit in well with the Schutzstaffel.
The show is set against a backdrop telling Afghanistan’s history, from the fall of the monarchy through the Soviet military intervention, the mass exodus of Afghan refugees to the United States and Pakistan, and the advent of the Taliban regime.
But the kites are resplendent. They of course aren’t as big as what Amir and Hassan would have flown in an open field versus a crowded stage, but, in miniature, attached to thin poles waved by actors, the kites travel through the sky of Kabul, the white tissue paper moving through the air with a swish.
Arison’s stiff, wooden performance, especially in the first act, was in sharp contrast to the moving and memorable performances by other cast members including Sirakian and Tahir, and the role doesn’t necessarily call for a stiff performance. David Amad’s Amir in the 2017 West End production at the Playhouse Theatre was captivating in his heart-wrenching performance.
Amir, it turns out, must amend for his sins and returns to his homeland at the urging of his father’s closest friend, Rahim Khan (Dariush Kashani), after building a new life in San Francisco with a suitable Afghan bride, Soraya (Azita Ghanizada), the daughter of an important former Afghan general (Houshang Touzie).
I didn’t say very much about Barney George’s set design because there isn’t much to say. There are tall rectangular panels of varying heights lined up along the back of the stage, perhaps to evoke a skyline although that certainly isn’t representative of Kabul. In addition, there’s a ramp that doesn’t really seem to serve a purpose beyond acting as an occasional hill.
William Simpson’s projections, however, were a much needed antidote to the dullness of the set, be it the kite-filled sky or the pomegranate tree mentioned multiple times in the play.
Despite its flaws, it’s an extremely moving play and the performances by Sirakian (who portrays two pivotal characters) and Tahir make for an extremely moving evening of theater.
The Kite Runner
Helen Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes
(Photo: Accura Media Group)