High school love is often blind. My affair with Khaled Hosseini’s novel “The Kite Runner” was no exception. Equally harrowing and hopeful, the book was easy to cherish as a child. But the ability to praise it without complication was a privileged one. My hometown on Long Island was a world away from Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul. The Taliban was a threat that wreaked havoc beyond our borders. When I first watched the 2007 film adaptation of “The Kite Runner,” I did so unaware of the fact that its young actors had to flee Afghanistan for their own protection. Today, the context, controversy and criticism of “The Kite Runner” is available to me, but I remain protective of the naive teenager who first adored it. That girl is the one most disappointed by the current Broadway adaptation, which has thinned Hosseini’s compelling investigation of friendship in the face of carnage into narrative fodder.
The play opens with Amir (Amir Arison), an Afghan man living in California and reflecting on the Kabul childhood he fled. As a kid, Amir was bookish with a cruel streak. He thought it funny when a neighborhood dog was hurt — but he had ordered someone else to harm it: Hassan (Eric Sirakian), Amir’s servant and friend. Both boys lost their mothers and were raised by their fathers: Baba (a stoic figure of the Pashtun class played by Faran Tahir) and Ali (Baba’s servant and a member of the persecuted Hazaras, portrayed by Evan Zes). Hassan and Amir were inseparable save for when night fell; Hassan would return to domestic quarters and Amir to his father’s mansion. They revel in their play, especially running kites, until the day when Hassan is viciously sodomized by a local bully named Assef (Amir Malaklou). Amir witnesses the violence but does nothing to stop it — a cowardly decision that smears guilt over the rest of his life.
Rather than show us most of these events in action, playwright Matthew Spangler uses Amir as a narrator, relaying the occurrences from downstage. Sure, he’s getting the story out. But is he getting it through? Not successfully. When Arison does slip into the scenes of his childhood memory — pitching his voice higher, emphasizing his Dari accent to distinguish time and place, it comes off as amateurly staccato — my line, now yours, mine again — like the ensemble is stuck in early days of rehearsal. Moments that do inch toward emotional depth (when Baba lectures to Amir about sin, for example) are cut short by incessant monologuing. Arison’s odd delivery expels so much energy in mining for laughs, it’s as if director Giles Croft had told him he was playing to a sitcom audience rather than a Broadway house.
The play’s second act is a race to wrap up three decades of Amir’s familial and Afghanistan’s political history, yet the audience is left with unsatisfactory tastes of both. There is no justice for Hassan and little contextualization of Afghanistan’s monarchical fall and Taliban takeover. The discrimination Muslims faced post-9/11 is simplified down to a throwaway line and news of Ali’s horrific death is bafflingly delivered as a joke. Amir returns to Afghanistan and reunites with Rahim Khan (Dariush Kashani), Baba’s old friend, who discloses to Amir new truths about his family’s history. Amir eventually realizes that the sage old man knows all about his betrayal of Hassan. But after nearly three hours of monotone sardonicism, Amir’s sudden cries for atonement are impossible to empathize with. He is brave only when forced to be by Rahim Khan, honest to his wife only when he needs her help, redeemable only to Allah.
I did not realize how much of the beauty of “The Kite Runner” lived in the expansiveness of its storytelling until that was taken away. Hosseini’s characters lose their complexity from the play’s muddled perspective: Baba is prideful, Ali is loyal, Amir is weak, Hassan is sacrificial, Assef is evil, Rahim Khan is wise, Soraya (Amir’s wife, played by Azita Ghanizada) is loving, Sohrab (Hassan’s son, again Sirakian) is afraid. No one moves beyond a single dimension.
If there is a great performance, it belongs to Salar Nader, the tabla percussionist underscoring the play’s action. Every strike of Nader’s instrument lifts the play off its flat terrain and into the streets of Kabul — representing the only moments of the night that truly take flight.
“The Kite Runner” is a book in play’s clothing. In an attempt to reconnect audiences with a story cherished by millions, the play’s creative team has torched any beauty there was to admire in the first place. What the novel slowly reveals through Amir’s reflective point of view, the play just speaks, abandoning all finesse. Like most high school love affairs, Broadway’s “Kite Runner” may be best off forgotten.
“The Kite Runner” opened at the Hayes Theatre on July 21, 2022.
Review Photo: Joan Marcus
Creative: Adapted by Matthew Spangler; Based on the Novel by Khaled Hosseini; Composer: Jonathan Girling; Directed by Giles Croft; Scenic Design by Barney George; Costume Design by Barney George; Lighting Design by Charles Balfour; Sound Design by Drew Baumohl; Projection Design by William Simpson.
Producers: Produced by Victoria Lang, Ryan Bogner, Tracey McFarland, Broadway & Beyond Theatricals, Jayne Baron Sherman, Hunter Arnold, Kayla Greenspan, Franklin Theatrical Group, Jodi Kaplan, Kate Cannova/Jamie Joeyen-Waldorf/Samantha Squeri, Jon Messner, Dominick LaRuffa Jr./Batchelder Gleberman Productions, P3 Productions, Michael Seiden/Kim Vasquez, Jeremy Handelman, Rogers & Ganns Productions, Cathy Dantchik, Flashner/Michaely, Full Out Creative, Ken & Rande Greiner, Daniel Marracino, Red Tail Entertainment, Marcy Syms and David Zevin; Produced in association with UK Productions Ltd. and Flying Entertainment Ltd./Kilimanjaro Group Ltd.
Cast: Amir Arison, Danish Farooqi, Azita Ghanizada, Joe Joseph, Dariush Kashani, Beejan Land, Amir Malaklou, Christine Mirzayan, Eric Sirakian, Faran Tahir, Houshang Touzie and Evan Zes.