Unsurprisingly, the most memorable image in “The Kite Runner,” which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Thursday night, is of the kites. They’re miniature, attached to thin poles that several actors wave, white tissue-paper fluttering, birdlike, over their heads. The paper crinkles as the kites part the air with a soft swish.
If only the rest of this stiff production, adapted by Matthew Spangler from the popular 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini, exuded such elegance.
A redemption story about an unlikable — sometimes downright despicable — protagonist, “The Kite Runner” opens in 2001, with Amir (Amir Arison), a Pashtun Afghan who explains that a cowardly decision he made at 12 years old shaped the person he is today .
He doesn’t tell us what it was immediately; he steps back in time to show us scenes of his life in Kabul, with his single father, Baba (Faran Tahir); their servant Ali (Evan Zes), a member of the oppressed and harassed Hazara minority group; and Ali’s son, Hassan (Eric Sirakian). The rest of the cast of 13 fills in as other figures in Amir’s life, including his future wife, Russian soldiers, and various nameless characters from the Afghan community on both sides of the world.
Arison (who plays the preteen Amir as well throughout) reads to the illiterate Hassan, though not without mocking him for it. He lets Hassan take the fall when they get in trouble. Yet Hassan faithfully partners with Amir in a competitive game where kite owners maneuver and use coated or sharpened strings to cut their competitors out of the sky; runners chase and catch the fallen kites as a prize.
Reporting From Afghanistan
When Amir fails to stop an act of violence against Hassan, the boys’ friendship is irreparably damaged. Hassan never truly leaves Amir, though; he carries the guilt to America, to which he and Baba escape after Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan ushers in the vicious regime of the Taliban. After finding love and a successful career, Amir eventually returns to his homeland to redeem himself from his past transgressions.
“The Kite Runner” was first staged in 2007 at San Jose State University, and went on to play throughout England, eventually on the West End. For the Broadway engagement, producers turned to Arison, an Off Broadway regular who had a supporting role for nearly a decade on NBC’s “The Blacklist.”
Under Giles Croft’s direction, Arison’s Broadway debut proves spotty. He recites his opening lines with the stiffness of a child delivering a book report, and never totally eases into the role.
The part would be tough work for any actor; Amir is onstage for the entire show, and the transitions between his middle-aged and younger selves, some three decades apart, require the kind of gymnastics that not every performer can stick.
Not to mention the challenge of the character himself: a cowardly, insecure boy who becomes a cowardly, insecure man despite a childhood bolstered by the unfaltering love and loyalty of his friend Hassan, played with heartbreaking innocence by Sirakian.
It’s easier in the novel to ride the twists and turns of Amir’s journey, even as he leaves Hassan behind in the first third of the story. Onstage the play shuffles along, and it’s hard to stay invested in this unpalatable hero with Hassan in the rearview mirror.
For those who haven’t read “The Kite Runner” or seen the 2007 film, I won’t spoil the violent scene that causes the rift between the two friends, but it’s one that feels jarring in what otherwise reads like a tidy parable. Gasps of surprise from the audience signaled the sudden shock of real-world horror.
Again, part of that isn’t negotiable, since the emotionally pandering novel is the show’s DNA. But Croft’s mechanical direction often plays up the pathos, as when a character dies too dramatically, or in a scene where Amir prays for a loved one to be spared. Then there’s the phlegm-inducing serving of cheese, when Amir finds himself in 1981 San Francisco: Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” plays as characters in gaudy ’80s duds traipse across the stage throwing out random decade-appropriate nouns like “Prince,” “Pac-Man” and “Darth Vader.”
For “The Kite Runner” to work, the boys’ nemesis needs to be formidable, but Spangler’s script diminishes Assef (Amir Malaklou), the childhood bully. He is no longer the novel’s sociopathic neo-Nazi, but more of an antagonist from an after-school special — with a shaky accent.
Speaking of shaky, Barney George’s set design — which includes a stage-length vert ramp seemingly borrowed from a skate park and jagged rectangular panels lined up along the back wall — is frustratingly ambiguous. Two giant fabric sails occasionally descend from on high, resembling wings of a kite, but they are mostly distracting.
William Simpson’s projection design provides a dose of whimsy, however, the watercolor renderings of a kite-filled sky or a pomegranate tree lending a fanciful storybook quality to the script.
Legitimacy is always a tricky question when it comes to productions about people of color. That a story about the struggles of Afghans over the course of nearly three decades is on Broadway is a feat in itself, as is the cast of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent.
Chunks of dialogue are spoken in a Farsi dialect (all credit to the cultural adviser and script consultant Humaira Ghilzai) and much of the underscoring features the tuneful plinks and thumps of the tabla player Salar Nader, a steady presence on one side of the stage and one of the production’s gems. (Jonathan Girling wrote the evocative music.)
Still, “The Kite Runner” is not nearly as rich as the spate of Off Broadway plays that have recently explored the individual and national losses faced by Iran and Afghanistan, including Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul” and Sanaz Toossi’s “English” and “Wish You Were Here.” As Off Broadway has often proven, there are more compelling ways to tell a story.
The Kite Runner
Through Oct. 30 at the Hayes Theater, Manhattan; thekiterunnerbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.