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Theater Review: “Love in Afghanistan” at Arena Stage

A world-premiere play explores a love affair born under the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Khris Davis and Melis Aker in Love in Afghanistan at Arena Stage. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

It’s easy to understand why writers are unable to resist the allure of unlikely romances as material, with all the seemingly endless potential they offer for comedic misunderstandings, dramatic grand gestures, and ultimate doom in the final act. But the mismatch presented by Charles Randolph-Wright in Love in Afghanistan, currently having its world premiere at Arena Stage, is just too precious to ever fully manifest itself off the page. A vain, self-motivated hip-hop star who travels to Afghanistan to entertain troops and falls for a charming but tricky young interpreter who works to save battered women? It’s an awful lot to swallow.

This production, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, might come together if Duke (Khris Davis) and Roya (Melis Aker) had the kind of chemistry to explain why either would be attracted to the other (they don’t), or if circumstances thrust them together in a situation that allowed each to see the other’s true character (they don’t), or if Afghanistan itself was more of a presence and less of a vague idea (it isn’t). Instead, there’s a tepid meet-cute of sorts in which Duke peppers Roya with questions following a show he’s done for soldiers on an Army base, and she replies only with yes-and-no answers, apparently piquing the interest of a man who’s used to women falling at his feet.

The concept could work better if there were more to the main story, especially given the fascinating and frustrating snippets of ideas that emerge along the way. Duke acts tough but comes from a privileged upbringing in Washington as the son of a lawyer and a domineering senior VP at the World Bank (Dawn Ursula); Roya was raised bacha posh, meaning her parents dressed her and treated her like a boy until she was a teenager. But if this shared sense of living with a false identity brings the couple together, Randolph-Wright doesn’t show it. We’re left instead with the sense that Duke is drawn to Roya’s innocence, while she’s attracted to him for reasons that ultimately remain a mystery.

And then there’s the dialogue, which clunks around with all the heaviness of steel-toed Doc Martens. “We are the chess pieces on the board that we don’t control,” says Roya. “Where I’m from, people don’t actually talk anymore. You know, technology?” says Duke. Napoleon and Josephine they ain’t. As Duke, Davis waves his arms around in front of him while articulating his grand ideas with a faux-tough affect that soon becomes tiresome, and offers little hint of the circumstances he grew up in. He has none of the intellectual complexity of Pharrell Williams or Kanye West, and all of the arrogance of one who’s never left the US, despite his mother’s Anglo-Caribbean heritage and high-powered job. “How could you refuse a trip to the States?” he asks Roya at one point, as bemused as if she’d turned down a minibreak to Elysium itself.

Aker offers a nuanced, engaging performance as Roya, who’s both funny (particularly in gender-bending mode) and deeply committed to helping further the cause of women in her country, and the most frustrating thing of all is that this aspect of Afghanistan is barely hinted at. Roya and Duke wander off-base for a hot second to a tea shop, where drama veers into cliché in an attempt to bolster the play’s lack of a plot—but the second act is set mostly in Dubai, where Duke summons Roya and her father (Joseph Kamal) because his mother is unable to get them visas to the US. Neither location ever feels more than coldly clinical, and it’s impossible to imagine any of the heat of the desert, or the enticement of a completely foreign place. Daniel Conway’s set consists mostly of an oversize rug downstage surrounded by metal grates, with the glass lanterns hanging from the ceiling suggesting a souk more than a military base.

The show draws strength from the performances of Ursula and Kamal, who are complex and funny characters who also develop an attraction to one another (if a less wide-eyed version of the puppy love that Duke seems to feel for Roya). As Desiree, Ursula is the more dominant of the two, and lords it over her son so spectacularly that how he gathered the initiative to become a rapper rather than a business school graduate is anyone’s guess. Kamal’s character, Sayeed, is the play’s best attempt at exploring Afghanistan as more than a location—he has the maddening chauvinism of a man in a man’s world but also seems to respect his daughter and her attempts to make things better.

The last time Randolph-Wright was at Arena Stage he was directing Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, a truly poetic and transformational play about a place where women are little more than currency, but manage to find ways to triumph nonetheless. Love in Afghanistan might do the same if it relied less on the tired format of two very different people finding common ground and looked more thoughtfully at why people are drawn to each other in the first place. Duke’s creative instincts, Roya’s struggles to think like a woman, and Desiree’s career success all offer plenty of fodder for a fascinating exploration of clashing cultures. Unfortunately, Love in Afghanistan seems more content to stay safely at the base.

Love in Afghanistan is at Arena Stage through November 17. Running time is about two hours and five minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena’s website.