The Soho Playhouse is an artistic institution in New York that punches well-above its weight in the theatre world. Much of this rests on the Fringe Encore Series, which brings some of the best fringe work from around the world to its stage. With “Afghanistan is Not Funny,” it has scored again. Henry Nayler’s one-actor show has won more awards than many shows have had performances, and Nayler himself has won at Edinburgh 3 times. And they were well-deserved, every one of them.
Like most one-actor shows, Afghanistan is Not Funny relies on the personal adventures of the playwright. Back in 2002, Nayler went to Afghanistan to research his earlier show Finding Bin Laden. Helped by Glaswegian photographer Sam Maynard, Nayler survived visiting Kabul just after the Taliban left.
In that time, he almost got blown up by the Taliban, was briefly detained by the mujhadeen and was threatened by an American colonel who was later tried as part of the Abu Ghraib war crimes trials. He also meets an Afghan fixer (the locals in rough areas who help western journalist not die) who is actually a surgeon; the man gets paid so little at that job that showing an English comedian around is more lucrative. That says more about what outsiders have done to Afghanistan than almost anything else. The Taliban are back in power, so Nayler’s observations are as relevant and fresh as they were all those years ago.
Nayler has survived decades in the comedy clubs of Britain as well, and that experience has made him a very fine raconteur. He deftly moves from one character to another, and his comedic and dramatic senses of timing are excellent. Put simply, I wish the performance had been longer.
Despite the title, there are loads of laughs. Some of the jokes are Anglo-centric such as the remarks about the Birmingham accent being the most depressing on Earth (Nayler clearly has never been in the East Texas oil patch or the northern Minnesota Iron Range). Audiences unfamiliar with some quirks of Britain might miss a chuckle or two, but almost all of the script is universal.
Where the show is at its most interesting, however, is at those points of the performance where Nayler tries to untangle what is going on in Afghanistan, what is going on in his head and what he learned about the outsider’s view of a situation like that.
For instance, there is a scene in which Nayler, Maynard and their fixer go into a tent at a refugee camp. A young girl with some kind of bundle approaches them. For whatever reason, they get an eerie feeling about it. Nayler describes it as “supernatural.” They flee before she hands over whatever was in the bundle. Was it a gift? A baby needing medical care? A baby for whom medical care would be pointless? They never find out, which seems a good metaphor for our wars of the last 20 years. The West never really sees the truth in such a place, deciding to craft a narrative that suits it rather than uncover the reality as experienced by the locals.
Running Time: 60 minutes without intermission
“Afghanistan is Not Funny” is playing at the Soho Playhouse at 15 Vandam Street in New York City as part of its International Fringe Encore program on December 7 and 9 at 7 pm. December 10 at 5 pm and December 11 at 9pm. For tickets and more information, visit the Soho Playhouse website.