Meditations on the fractious, painful history of Afghanistan have been filling the pages of newspapers and magazines ever since Sept. 11, and now the country's roiling past and present are spilling across the stage of New York Theater Workshop, where Tony Kushner's new play, "Homebody/Kabul," is making its world premiere in an accomplished, fiercely well-acted production directed by Declan Donnellan.
Meditations on the fractious, painful history of Afghanistan have been filling the pages of newspapers and magazines ever since Sept. 11, and now the country’s roiling past and present are spilling across the stage of New York Theater Workshop, where Tony Kushner’s new play, “Homebody/Kabul,” is making its world premiere in an accomplished, fiercely well-acted production directed by Declan Donnellan.
Dense, thorny, eloquent, troubling and a little troublesome, the play is big — nearly four hours long — and in some ways as unwieldy as its subject. The first act is an hourlong monologue delivered by a chatty Englishwoman in her cozy London parlor; the second and third chart a sprawling journey through Kabul and a trawl through the dysfunctional relationship between the woman’s husband and daughter, who have come to the city seeking answers to questions surrounding her murder. (The play is set in August 1998, shortly after the American bombing of suspected terrorist camps in the country.)
Part historical primer (in this respect its appeal is somewhat compromised by the wealth and wide exposure of recent reporting), part travelogue (ditto), the play is an exploration of the combustible clash of postmodern Western culture and the gnarled accretions of religious, political and social tradition in the region. It represents an impressive piece of scholarship and synthesis, and is always engrossing on an intellectual level, even if one may argue with some of its implicit points.
But it is also bleak, dry and rather discursive, and it’s not likely to capture the imagination of a wider public already sated, probably, on stories of the miseries and complexities of Afghan history. Kushner’s last play about a culture clash, “Angels in America,” was an eloquent cri du coeur; “Homebody/Kabul” lacks that play’s full-heartedness and warmth. “Angels” was written in sorrow and anger and love, but in “Homebody/Kabul” the last emotion is largely missing in action.
It does figure significantly in the first act, an astonishing monologue for a character identified only as “the Homebody,” a middle-aged Englishwoman of capacious vocabulary and baroque syntax, who has cultivated an obsession with Afghanistan that she is more than willing to share with us. (She might almost be one of Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads.”)
“Our story begins in at the very dawn of history, circa 3000 B.C.,” she says, reading from an outdated guidebook to Kabul. A woman who sadly but sweetly proclaims that her “borders have only been broached by books,” the Homebody reveals, while giving a tour through Afghan history’s satraps and suzerainties and something called “the Greco-Bactrian Confusion,” that she’s on antidepressants due to unsatisfactory relationships with her husband and daughter.
Linda Emond’s performance is a technical marvel — the monologue is full of sentences of an ornateness that would give Henry James pause — but it’s even more impressive for its gentle wit and warmth. The actress lends a humble, humanizing glow to the themes that will resonate throughout the evening, as when she speaks of the corrupting influence of globalization: “Ours is a time of connection. … All must be touched. All touch corrupts. All must be corrupted.” She is speaking of cultures, but uses the same terms when musing on her troubled relationship with her daughter: “I withhold my touch. The touch which does not understand is the touch which corrupts … and which corrupts itself.”
That’s an example of Kushner’s remarkable ability to view the political through the prism of the personal, as is this dense (overwritten?), dazzlingly eloquent and ultimately moving monologue in its entirety. It is a meditation on the invisible interconnections between the seemingly remote worlds of middle-class London and miserable Afghanistan, and a testament to the ability of the curious imagination — moved by love — to span even the widest geographical, political and cultural gaps.
When the curtain rises on act two, we learn that Emond’s character also has established a more tactile relationship with the realm she’s dreamed of, and she’s been martyred for it. Her husband, Milton Ceiling (Dylan Baker), and daughter, Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson), are in a Kabul hotel, listening to a grisly description of the wounds she suffered at the hands of a group of offended Taliban thugs.
Milton is happy to accept the official explanation for why they can’t deliver her body, but Priscilla, noting some discrepancies, goes in search of an answer. Donning a burqa, she meets up with a friendly Tajik poet who offers to be her local guide.
He puts her in touch with a Frank Sinatra-obsessed young Afghan — his garbled monologue mixing Taliban admonitions with lyrics from a dozen Sinatra standards is the play’s comic highlight — who tells her that her mother is not dead: She’s married an Afghan and become a Muslim, and she wants Priscilla and her father to escort the man’s first wife, a woman driven nearly mad by her oppression, out of the country.
The scenes featuring Priscilla’s encounters with various Afghans are, as one might expect, marked by grim details of suffering under the Taliban, and we see a couple of Taliban thugs menacing Priscilla and, later, the woman she and her father have indeed decided to aid. But the suggestion that Milton’s wife would forsake family and Western civilization to live under the Taliban points up a problematic aspect of the play. (It’s never made clear if she has married the Muslim or is really dead, which is something of a copout.) As Kushner depicts it, life in the West, “corrupted by luxury,” to borrow a phrase, seems to engender as much suffering — albeit of a different kind — as life under the Taliban.
The three English characters in the last two acts of the play are depicted with unremitting, condemnatory sourness. The prickly Priscilla and Milton spend most of their time exchanging recriminations and vulgar insults (“Oh, dad, fuck yourself” is a typical line). When he’s not thus occupied, Milton and a British government functionary named Quango (Bill Camp) shoot heroin and generally wallow in their self-indulgent misery. (At one distasteful point, Milton passes out and Quango slaps a pair of Priscilla’s underwear on his head and starts masturbating; later Quango blackmails Priscilla into sleeping with him in exchange for a letter of passage for their unexpected guest.)
The relentlessly unpleasant behavior of these representatives of Western culture is contrasted with the gentle eloquence of the Tajik poet, the passionate despair of the suffering Afghan wife, the mystic wisdom of a hermit guarding the grave of Cain. In a telling exchange between Priscilla and the Tajik poet, she apologizes for her trouble: “We’ve brought our misery to your city, my family.” He replies, “What have you ever brought us but misery?” Sometimes the wagging finger of the playwright is visible through the play’s complex web of incident.
And the bitterness of these characterizations poses a dramatic liability, as well, since they dominate the last two-thirds of the play. Baker, Camp and Hutchinson give fine perfs (though she might ease up a bit on the stridency), but their characters are unpleasant company. With Priscilla and Milton to come home to, I might don a burqa and get lost, too.
Another, inevitable dramatic liability is the audience’s possible saturation with reporting from Afghanistan in the past few months; oddly, given its seeming timeliness, the play probably would have made a stronger dramatic impact if its information about the tangled political and cultural map of the country were not all burned into our memory banks thanks to the tragic events of Sept. 11 and their ongoing consequences.
Still, the play remains consistently engrossing throughout its long running time, thanks to the momentum generated by Donnellan’s production. His cast is terrific: Joseph Kamal, Firdous Bamji, Dariush Kashani, Yusef Bulos and Rita Wolf, who play various Afghan natives, all give sharply etched, memorable performances. The set by Nick Ormerod, dominated by several walls of crumbling brick, is evocative and expressively lit by Brian MacDevitt.
And merely by putting on a single stage, however messily or, occasionally, polemically, the friction between the cultures of Afghanistan and the industrialized West, Kushner’s play is vividly illustrating the point at the heart of his play: For better or, all too often, for worse, these seemingly disparate worlds have long been and always will be connected by infinitely complicated networks of cultural, political and human interaction. The suffering of one cannot be — must not be — separated from the suffering of the other. To pretend otherwise is only to sow more pain, and reap more pain.
Dr. Qari Shah - Joseph Kamal
Mullah Ali Aftar Durranni - Firdous Bamji
Milton Ceiling - Dylan Baker
Quango Twistleton - Bill Camp
Priscilla Ceiling - Kelly Hutchinson
A Munkrat - Dariush Kashani
Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh - Yusef Bulos
Zai Garshi/The Marabout - Sean T. Krishnan
Mahala - Rita Wolf
A Border Guard - Jay Charan