The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s beautiful novel of brotherhood and ethnoreligious persecution, is also a refugee story. In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the United States’ failure to honor its promises of sanctuary to many of the Afghans who had aided its forces, the story becomes pointedly relevant again.
The story’s fictional recollection of a long-lost period of stability in the war-torn country half a century ago is especially heartbreaking. That’s the part that works best in the flawed but earnest, moving and funny theatrical adaptation now on Broadway.
Nostalgia for a Lost Era
Set in the 1970s, Act I of playwright Matthew Spangler’s The Kite Runner depicts the brotherly friendship of Amir (Amir Arison), a privileged Pashtun boy raised in Kabul by his stern, successful father Baba (Faran Tahir), and Hassan (Eric Sirakian), the son of Baba’s longtime servant Ali (Evan Zes). Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, members of a persecuted caste on the wrong side of Afghanistan’s Sunny-Shia divide.
His playmate’s lower caste means nothing to Amir, at least consciously. The bookish Pashtun boy suffers bullying too, from intolerant schoolmates. And he lives under a cloud of guilt and shame: First, his mother died giving birth to him; on top of that, his bereft father doesn’t understand or accept Amir’s pacifistic nature and artistic interests.
An indefatigable Arison is on stage pretty much the entire length of the play, which runs two and half hours including intermission. He’s a gusher of elastic energy. Delivering one of those outstanding adult-playing-a-child performances, Arison is responsible not only for playing the lead character but for addressing the audience to supply explanations and background information (at times unnecessarily). He’s matched by the wonderful Sirakian, who with high-pitched voice and boyish mien is a crushingly believable Hassan.
Even if you haven’t read the book, you’ll get the feeling challenges await this brotherly friendship of social unequals. The way the boys support each other, and the nightmarish event that breaks their bond, gives this part of the story a particularly gratifying depth.
New Life, Old Troubles
Spangler’s script doesn’t have the advantage of the novel’s beautiful language. But the staging, flowered with recessed fan- (or kite-)shaped curtains, and the cool lighting and atmospheric sound, which includes a live onstage tabla player, help poeticize the action around the two vivid central characters.
The eloquent staging continues into Act II. Amir and his father have fled political chaos. Years pass; eventually a whole generation goes by. There’s a funny and touching love dynamic which sees Amir sneakily courting a young woman whose father is another socially conservative Afghan refugee.
Then, happily married and living in San Francisco, Amir is forced to confront the consequences of his own past actions, his father’s, and by inference his native land’s history of violence and intolerance.
The play telescopes so much plot and time into the somewhat overlong Act II that too much needs to be told with not enough shown. Some scenes resonate strongly and the drama intensifies toward the end; a hopeful conclusion leaves a tang of sweetness. But my patience wore out along the way. This problem of the passage of time inheres in any attempt to tell a multigenerational story in a single evening on stage.
Despite the production’s failure to entirely overcome that obstacle, the cast shines under Giles Croft’s skillful direction and the production immerses us for all of Act I and parts of Act II. The Kite Runner is well worth seeing for its acting, its staging, and its universal meaningfulness. Then I recommend reading (or re-reading) the even more deeply affecting novel.
The Kite Runner is at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater through 30 October. Visit the website for schedule and tickets. A portion of the proceeds will support the Khaled Hosseini Foundation for humanitarian relief and shelter; USA for UNHCR; Welcome.US, which began by supporting Afghan refugees after the 2021 fall of Kabul and has expanded to assist Ukrainian refugees; and Women for Women International.