By Samuel L. Leiter . . .

The publication in 2003 of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, a hugely successful novel dealing with contemporary Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban, couldn’t have been better timed. The heart of the book is essentially about the relationship of a father and his son, and an act of redemption carried out by that guilt-burdened son. However, the story’s authentic introduction of Afghan lives and culture was so magnetic in the wake of the country’s alleged implication in 9/11, that nearly every sentient adult I knew immediately began to read it. Even I, despite my minimal time for popular novels, fell under its spell. 

Salar Nader

But the book was highly controversial among Afghans, largely because of disputes about the nature of the inter-ethnic relationships it depicted between Pashtun and Hazara peoples, and a scene in which a young Hazara boy is raped by a Pashtun. The 2007 movie was equally controversial, and the young Afghan actors who appeared in the rape scene had to be spirited out of the country. The same year that the movie appeared, Matthew Spangler’s stage version was born at San Jose State University. It has been produced numerous times both in the USA and abroad, and is now making its Broadway debut at the Helen Hayes Theater. 

The Kite Runner is an incident-packed story of what happens in the life a boy from Kabul named Amir (Amir Arison, fine) who, as an adult, narrates the events, shifting between his childhood and grown-up personas. His widowed father, Baba (Faran Tahir, commanding), is a wealthy, strong-willed Pashtun merchant with a faithful Hazara servant of forty years, Ali (Evan Zes, satisfactory). Ali’s son, Hassan (Erik Sirakian, effective), has been brought up alongside Amir, so closely they might as well be brothers. 

(Front row) Danish Farooqui, Amir Arison, Joe Joseph, (back row) Faran Tahir, Evan Zes, Houshang Touzie and Dariush Kashani

Amir and Hassan are leaders in Kabul’s intense kite flying contests, which require flyers to use their kite strings to cut those of their rivals. Amir is a kite flyer and Hassan a kite runner, admired for knowing just where the final kite will fall so he can retrieve it, a significant achievement. (The kite flying scenes are simulated by actors manipulating small, white, birdlike kites in choreographed patterns presumably staged by “movement director” Kitty Winter.)

Amir’s domineering father is hard on him, showing little sympathy for his son’s wish to write stories. On the other hand, he offers great affection for Hassan, as represented by his instantly forgiving him for a transgression that Amir himself set up, hoping to get Hassan punished. Both boys are bullied by a psychopathic youth named Assef (Amir Malaklou, gritty). (The novel’s depiction of Assef as blond and Aryan-looking—his father was German—is rejected here.) Hassan’s skill with a slingshot saves Amir from danger at one point, but when the Hazara-hating Assef rapes Hassan (offstage), Amir stands by and does nothing, an act of omission that will eat at him for years.

Evan Zes, Eric Sirakian, Amir Arison

These, however, are only a few of the events and issues that arise in the course of the roiling narrative, which includes the escape from Afghanistan of Amir and Baba after the Soviet invasion; their move to San Francisco, where they are reduced to selling second-hand miscellanea at a flea market; the romance and marriage of Amir and a beautiful Afghan named Soraya (Azita Ghanizada, lovely), daughter of the authoritative former general named Tahiri (Houshang Touzie, convincing); the revelation of Hassan’s true parentage; Amir’s return to Afghanistan to adopt Hassan’s child; his reencountering Assef, now a Taliban fighter; and the tragic outcome of his efforts, among too many other things to mention.

Only a narration-based script could pack so much into two hours and forty-five minutes; this means that reams of words pour out of Amir’s mouth as he fills in the historical, social, cultural and personal details, stepping in and out of the action; depending on his age, he behaves differently at any one point, yet rarely changes from his simple costume of white shirt and slacks. Five of the twelve actors play multiple supporting roles. They’re supplemented by a superb tabla musician, Salar Nader, who accompanies the action from the side.

Faran Tahir and Dariush Kashani

With so much story to traverse, The Kite Runner often takes on a storytelling, rather than dramatic, aura, where the narration forces the characters to seem like pasteboard figures illustrating a tale rather than living beings whose experiences are revealed organically. Although some scenes capture a feeling of honest interaction, too many have a quality of rhetorical artificiality. Also, because so much of the novel is included, the play’s focus shifts sharply from the Amir-Hassan kernel of act one, to a second act in which the story moves to San Francisco, which, with the help of Barney George’s costumes, gets a satirical routine about life there in the early 1980s. It then spends much time—with dollops of romantic comedy—developing the love story of Amir and Soraya, even enacting their wedding, celebratory dance included. Perhaps the narrative could have condensed this material, even at the expense of losing some of the humor it evokes.

Faran Tahir, Beejan Land, Amir Arison, Danish Farooqui, Azita Ghanizada, Amir Malaklou, and Houshang Touzie

The locales shift often, depending on Amir’s narrative to set the scene. Barney George’s neutral set shows not much more than a backdrop of spikey structures that could as easily be a cityscape (although not of any city mentioned in the play) as a fence of random boards. Charles Balfour’s lighting and William Simpson’s projections make as much as possible of this rather simple arrangement. Giles Croft’s direction keeps the action moving swiftly and an extended fight scene is the work of Philip D’Orléans. However, in this age of high-tech film combat, stage violence seeking to be realistic, as here, rarely avoids looking like the opposite.

Much has been done to make this production’s use of Afghan cultural markers as authentic as possible; there are even untranslated segments spoken in Farsi. This alone will be of interest to many theatergoers unfamiliar with the world depicted. Within this environment, The Kite Runner, melodramatic and contrived as it is, is definitely compelling. It’s not perfect playwriting, but you can’t run away from its power to hold your interest.

The Kite Runner. Through October 30 at the Helen Hayes Theater (240 West 44th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). 

Photos: Joan Marcus