Operation Ajax (A Game of Skill and Chance)

In this courageous, unsettling, experimental piece set in a mythical casino, Butane Group uses the metaphor of addictive gambling to tell the story of the 1953 CIA-led coup that brought down the democratically elected secular Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, setting in motion a course of events resulting in the current religion-based government of Iran threatening U.S. interests today.

Constructed by director Noel Salzman with Tamara Schmidt and the participation of Meghan Frank, Rodney Hakim, Armistead Johnson, and Mireya Lucio from sources as diverse as reality TV shows about addiction and CIA and U.S. government documents and memoirs, seven actors blend realistic and abstract performance styles to show how the unseating of Mossadegh -- who had nationalized Iran's oil industry, undermining U.S. and British interests -- was ultimately disastrous, as the Shah's subsequent tyrannical rule lead to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath.

In a compelling tour-de-force performance as Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt, Jr., the CIA operative who masterminded Mossadegh's fall and the Shah's reinstatement, longtime Richard Foreman stalwart Jay Smith moves from casual confidence to anxious desperation. With his pudgy, malleable face; understated, often comically offhand delivery; and fluid movements, his Roosevelt is a disturbing comment on ruthless power and greed divorced from conscience and morality. Dorothy Abrahams, who has the handsome features, inner fire, and fierce idealism of the young Katharine Hepburn, is marvelous as the principled Mossadegh. Nicholas Warren-Gray is appropriately reserved and thoughtful as the young, impressionable Shah, and Rodney Hakim gives a moving, intelligent performance as tortured dissident writer-poet Reza Baraheni. Albert Aeed, Gavin Starr Kendall, and Kelly Markus also do able work in supporting roles.

While the 80-minute intermissionless piece gets off to a slow start, the pace picks up considerably in the white hot second half, when Salzman's cleverly choreographed staging of Roosevelt's emotional and political meltdown drives home the work's potent, timely observations on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Presented by the Butane Group

at Where Eagles Dare Theatre, 347 W. 36th St., NYC.

Feb. 14-March 10. Wed.-Sat., 8:15 p.m.

(917) 916-1307.