Matthew Spangler's stage adaptation of The Kite Runner, which is in its area premiere by New Repertory Theatre (at Arsenal Center for the Arts through September 30), is so faithful to Khaled Hosseini's 2003 bestseller that you might think the novel a religion. (And no, I don't mean Islam.) But like the book, the theater piece is more exhilarating in its first half, which evokes the onetime lushness of Hosseini's war-devastated homeland and chronicles the loss of his narrator's innocence, than in its overwrought second, with its sadistic Taliban villain and serial fisticuffs. But the melodramatic turn is an inherited sin, and Elaine Vaan Hogue's production — spare yet urgent and atmospheric — proves itself, like Hosseini's protagonist, absolvable.
Spangler's adaptation debuted in 2009 at San José Rep, home of former New Rep honcho Rick Lombardo. Its chief allure is the retention of the novel's narrative voice, particularly in the first act, where the adult Amir not only tells his story but enthusiastically weaves himself into the rambunctious, then devastating events of his privileged Afghan youth. A bounding, tender Nael Nacer, as the grown-up Amir, shadows his arrogant if sensitive childhood self as he interacts with his forceful yet withholding father Baba, his loyal Hazara servant/friend Hassan, and the neighborhood bullies. Though Paul Tate dePoo III's set is mostly rocks and bricks and gravel, Nacer's Amir evokes in language an enchanted world of gardens, pomegranates, and entitlement — all shattered by a betrayal Amir can neither countenance nor confess.
After intermission, things get hurried as well as more lurid, but the New Rep staging hangs tough. It is here that Amir, having immigrated to California, is summoned home by family friend Rahim Khan, who offers a concrete if dangerous opportunity "to be good again." Nacer's anguish as Amir confronts the consequences of his past, both reparable and not, is heartrending if perhaps too frequent. Ken Baltin gives a robust performance as Baba, adamantine even when dying. The adult actor Luke Murtha is exquisitely centered yet puppyish as Hassan and later as Hassan's orphan son. Fahim Hamid captures the surliness, ebullience, and remorse of young Amir. And the makeshift kites, when they appear, held aloft on poles, supply both color and grace.
THE KITE RUNNER :: New Repertory Theatre :: Through September 30 :: Charles Mosesian Theatre at Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St, Watertown :: $28-$58 :: newrep.org