An early scene in the new Broadway play “The Kite Runner” is mostly spoken in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi, though the action depicts a distinctly American art form.
“This town ain’t big enough for the two of us!,” the 12-year-old Amir exclaims to his best friend, Hassan. The two boys, pretending to be cowboys, love American westerns, especially “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. After a standoff, Hassan charges at Amir, but Amir trips him and Hassan stumbles and falls. They wrestle, tumbling and giggling — blissfully unaware of the dark forces that will soon tear them apart.
The place is Kabul, the year is 1973 and the two actors playing the boys are actually adults. One of them, Amir Arison, 44, the veteran stage actor who recently left NBC’s hit series “The Blacklist” after nine seasons, portrays Amir as a young boy and an adult.
The show, which is scheduled to begin previews on July 6 at the Helen Hayes Theater, is based on Khaled Hosseini’s popular 2003 novel of the same name. It tells the story of Amir, a privileged Pashtun boy growing up alongside Hassan, the Hazara son of his father’s servant. After a childhood act of cowardice, Amir spends most of the play reflecting on and trying to atone for his failure to come to the aid of his best friend.
In playing Amir as both a child and an adult, Arison jumps between acting out his childhood memories and narrating them from the present. He doesn’t leave the stage once.
It may be a daunting part, but Arison, who cut his teeth on Off Broadway stages before appearing as an FBI counterterrorism expert in some 190 episodes of “The Blacklist,” is up for it.
Over the years, he’s played a flashy Iraqi dermatologist in the documentary drama “Aftermath”; a mysterious newlywed in Christopher Durang’s dark comedy “Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them”; and a government accountant in Stephen Belber’s “The Muscles in Our Toes,”
Still, he said over lunch recently, this role is the biggest challenge of his professional and personal life. “In the theater, you cut a vein open,” he said. “You give your voice, your body, your mind and your soul.”
Matthew Spangler, who adapted the story for the stage, said of the role: “It does raise the bar for that actor quite a bit, but then it becomes something truly virtuosic.”
Reporting From Afghanistan
While the casting director Laura Stanczyk and the cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai ensured that Afghan actors auditioned (and that it was easy for them to do so), the role of Amir ultimately went to Arison, who is Israeli American. He grew up in Florida the son of Israeli immigrants; his mother was born in a refugee camp to Holocaust survivors.
In March, when Arison landed the audition for Amir, his first call was to Ghilzai, whose family fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. He didn’t know of her affiliation with the show, but he had worked with her twice before — once for his role as a colonel in the Pakistani army in a West Coast production of J.T. Rogers’s “Blood and Gifts” — and asked for advice on his accent.
Arison is a chameleon, Ghilzai said: He’s played Afghans, Arabs, Americans and “metamorphosizes into whatever you need him to be.”
“The Kite Runner” was first staged in 2007 at San Jose State University, where Spangler teaches performance studies. Its first professional production took place in 2009, and it has since been staged in multiple countries. The Broadway production, directed by Giles Croft, is based on the version that ran at Nottingham Playhouse in 2013 and at Wyndham’s Theater in the West End three years later. (The play “mostly works on the level of childlike fable, satisfyingly schematic but frustratingly simplistic,” Stephen Dalton wrote in a Hollywood Reporter review.)
The book — published two years after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to depose the Taliban — has captivated millions of readers around the world. Now the play arrives on Broadway almost a year after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban seized power again.
Hosseini’s tale gave readers a rare inside perspective on Afghanistan and the intricacies of life there, but it also has, as Arison pointed out, universal themes of immigration, power, redemption, and father and son relationships.
“The immigrant story never goes away,” Croft, the director, said in an interview. “Most of us have it in us somewhere. Even if we didn’t experience it ourselves, somewhere in our background, somebody will have traveled to get somewhere that they think will be better or safer. So we carry it with us.”
As does Hosseini, whose family sought political asylum in the United States in 1980 after the Soviet army invaded the country, and told The Times last year that he still has “a perspective, and I do feel strongly about what’s going on in Afghanistan.” (In “The Kite Runner,” Amir and his father also escape Afghanistan — first to Pakistan, then to the United States.)
Along with Arison, the cast has deep Middle Eastern and South Asian roots. Azita Ghanizada, who portrays Amir’s wife, Soraya, and Salar Nader, who plays the tabla onstage throughout the show, are both Afghan.
“It’s been really heartening for me to see how devoted they are to representation,” Ghilzai, the cultural consultant, said of the cast members. “I think because their culture has been misrepresented so much that they really, really, really want to get it right.”
Still, placing a non-Afghan in the central role was not a choice made lightly.
“The thing that swung it for me,” Croft said of Arison’s casting, “was that he has an inherent warmth and generosity and vulnerability — all of which are qualities that the character has.”
In coaching the cast and creative team, Ghilzai guided actors through Dari pronunciations — including the names of characters and towns. The dialect is sprinkled throughout the script.
One actor recently asked Ghilzai about Afghan body language: What should he do if he loses in a competition? She advised making a thumbs up motion, a Middle Eastern insult. (They later replaced it with a different gesture, so the meaning wouldn’t get lost in translation.)
This production is Ghilzai’s first involvement as a consultant, and she worked closely with Spangler and Croft to re-evaluate the text. In a pivotal scene in the second act, Assef (Amir Malaklou), the neighborhood bully turned-Taliban member, taunts Amir, who has returned to Afghanistan from America.
“But America’s not all bad,” Assef tells him. “You know who taught me how to use a Stinger missile? Your C.I.A.”
The line emerged from conversations between Ghilzai, Spangler and Croft and was added for this production. It recognizes the role that U.S. foreign policy has played in the militarization of various groups in Afghanistan.
In his last episode of “The Blacklist,” Arison’s quirky character Aram Mojtabai told his colleagues that he’s leaving the FBI and plans to move to New York, where among other things, he’d likely see “a Broadway show.” (The episode left open room for him to return.)
On Twitter, the actor explained to fans that he was a big fan of Hosseini’s novel, had done his first play in second grade, and couldn’t pass up the lifetime dream to be on Broadway himself.
While his part there is “the most unheroic hero you’ll ever see,” he said in the interview, he has come to see it as personally meaningful in ways he didn’t expect.
At the beginning of the second act, Amir and his father are hidden inside a fuel truck, fleeing Afghanistan to neighboring Pakistan. Soviet soldiers stop the truck, and father and son don’t know if they’ll live or die.
“The other day I just lost it because I thought of my grandparents — that’s what happened to them,” Arison said. “That’s another way I connect, even though I’m not Afghan.
“So I’m hoping — and I think every audience should take what they want,” he added, that “through an individual story, we do not forget that history is repeating itself.”