Romance at first sight usually means being taken by surprise — “gobsmacked,” as one of the characters puts it in the awkwardly swoony “Love in Afghanistan” at Arena Stage. And the four figures in Charles Randolph-Wright’s premiere drama, generously laced with droll comedy, are nothing if not gobsmacked.
“You’re so extraordinary!” they gush in a variety of ways, over and over.
The setting is Bagram air base in Kabul, where a young hip-hop star named Duke is smitten by his female Afghan interpreter, Roya. (Duke is at Bagram to perform for the troops.) Duke the playa flirts, Roya the Muslim virgin resists, but they get along. So do Sayeed, Roya’s father (also a translator), and Desiree, Duke’s mother, who works for the World Bank.
“You are fascinating,” “You have been the surprise of my life” — the charm and romance foam up like soap suds. Randolph-Wright, one of the Mellon Foundation-funded resident playwrights at Arena and the director of Broadway’s current “Motown the Musical,” unabashedly loves these characters. But he doesn’t seem sure what to do with them, especially in such a volatile context. The fateful trip he cooks up for Duke and Roya, secretly venturing off-base and into Kabul against regulations and common sense, feels half-hearted.
Things predictably blow up from there, triggering military inquiries about Taliban threats. Unfortunately, that obscures a fascinating aspect of Roya: that she has frequently lived “bacha posh,” which means “dressed as a boy.” It’s often safer that way for girls in Afghanistan, she explains to Duke — the play does an awful lot of explaining — and it is often regarded as more honorable for families that do not have sons.
Duke has a mask, too; he’s a rich kid posing as a rhyming tough for the record industry money. But the script doesn’t delve into these conflicting roles Duke and Roya play, and it seldom dramatizes them in action. The relationship between the gender-blurred Roya and her traditional father would be worth a play by itself; as it is, Sayeed’s chauvinist attitudes are thinly summarized in a line that on Friday night drew knee-jerk hisses from some quarters of the Cradle, Arena’s 200-seat venue.
“Love in Afghanistan” is so uninterested in Afghanistan that U.S. military interrogators and a pivotal Afghan prisoner remain as off-stage characters. A lot of the second act takes place in Dubai, where Desiree has engineered a short visit for Sayeed and Roya and where a jolly romantic comedy breaks out. The crisp, funny tone has a disorienting, slightly fantastical showbizzy aura.
It’s impossible not to root for the noble Afghan girl, of course, and Melis Aker is tough and wry as Roya. The force of Aker’s passion eventually feels like it’s trying to plug a gap in the script, though, laboring to haul Afghan realities into view. Khris Davis is engaging as Duke, but the character’s inconsistencies — he’s literate and witty enough to intrigue Roya, but he also has a fat petulant streak — register as a little too improbable.
Joseph Kamal brings a calm presence to Sayeed, the most underwritten role at this point, but Dawn Ursula manages to command the play in stretches as Desiree. Ursula is one of those actresses who can use sentences like chefs use knives, which comes in handy as the no-nonsense Desiree carves up her capricious son.
Director Lucie Tiberghien’s production frames the play simply and elegantly. The Cradle isn’t made for fancy sets, so designer Daniel Conway provides some slightly elevated walkways. Mark Lanks creates deeply moody lighting, and Elisheba Ittoop’s music and sound design helps establish locales.
Arena uses the three-year-old Cradle sparingly; this is the first full production since last spring, and another won’t come along until June. Top ticket prices in what has become this rarefied new works palace are more than $100. As a not-for-profit concept, that’s hard to swallow.
By Charles Randolph-Wright. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien. Costumes, Kathleen Geldard. About two hours. $50-$105. Through Nov. 17 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.
Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.