Review: ‘Homebody/Kabul’

Taken as a prophetic cultural close-up of life in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, "Homebody/Kabul" has raw immediacy and power. Tony Kushner's playwriting strengths are on display: a fearless flair for language; the courage to confront painful emotions head-on; and a willingness to bend traditional playwriting form when it suits his purpose.

Taken as a prophetic cultural close-up of life in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, “Homebody/Kabul” has raw immediacy and power. Tony Kushner’s playwriting strengths, potently demonstrated in his previous “Angels in America,” are on display: a fearless flair for language; the courage to confront painful emotions head-on; and a willingness to bend traditional playwriting form when it suits his purpose. But his massive 3½-hour drama (cut from four, but still overlong) is compromised by plot loopholes and contrivances. Cold, unappealing central characters sustain interest on a cerebral level without making us care if they survive or solve their conflicts.

The show’s 55-minute opening monologue centers on the Homebody (Linda Emond), a middle-aged British woman who alternates between reading passages from a 1965 Afghanistan guidebook and revealing her frustrations as wife and mother. Emond’s Obie Award for her perf in New York was well-deserved — she wrings every nuance from torturously difficult dialogue (“We all remain suspended in the Rhetorical Colloidal Forever that agglutinates between might and do”), racing ahead, rearing back and playing with the words like a master musician.

Her disappearance is keenly felt in the subsequent two acts, when news arrives of her murder while on a mysterious trip to Kabul. Husband Milton (Reed Birney) and daughter Priscilla (Maggie Gyllenhaal) travel there to claim the body, at which point Priscilla begins to suspect her mother is still alive. She enlists the help of guide and poet Khwaja (Firdous Bamji) and learns from Afghan ex-actor Zai Garshi (Dariush Kashani), a worshipper like her mother of Frank Sinatra songs, that her mother has married a Muslim and intends to cut all ties with her former family.

Understandably shocked, Priscilla indulges in bizarre behavior, pulling off her burqa in public, screaming obscenities and behaving with such erratic recklessness that she loses all credibility, thus supporting her father’s accusation of “unnecessary antagonism.” She learns her mother’s new husband has a wife, Mahala (Rita Wolf), whom he wants to discard. Mahala’s family agrees she is crazy; the woman herself makes clear her condition is a response to her oppressive surroundinigs and begs to be rescued and taken to London.

Priscilla’s struggles are played against authentic-looking sets by James Schuette, which include two large bombed-out towers of mortar and brick on either side of the stage. The Kabul hotel interior and exteriors of shattered streets are spotlighted strikingly on a revolving stage.

Regrettably, Priscilla’s search lacks the truth of the production’s trimmings, coming across like a plot device. Since her problem feels farfetched, we’re neither moved by her anxieties nor concerned about her safety, even in a climactic scene where she defies armed officers. The gifted Gyllenhaal can’t make Priscilla believable, but her intensity keeps us watching. Birney is appropriately hurt and hostile as her father, though vicious father-daughter exchanges are too melodramatic, more stagy than gripping.

Director Frank Galati succeeds dynamically in his handling of subsidiary personalities. A parallel plot focuses on Milton and his interaction with quasi-diplomat and heroin addict Quango (Bill Camp). Camp brings pungent humor and pathos to a quirky role, in which Quango utters the desperate plea to Priscilla, “If you’re throwing yourself away, can’t you have sex with me first?” and turns it into a surprisingly moving moment. Bamji underplays eloquently as Khwaja, the guide, and Kashani is hilarious as the effusive Sinatra devotee.

These characters, torn by Taliban repression, give “Homebody/Kabul” a sense of genuine realism and tragedy despite unresolved issues and story gaps.

Homebody/Kabul

Mark Taper Forum; 760 seats; $47 top

Production

A Mark Taper Forum production of a play in three acts by Tony Kushner. Directed by Frank Galati; sets, James Schuette; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; original composition and sound design, Joe Cerqua; production stage manager, James T. McDermott. Opened, reviewed Oct. 1, 2003; runs through Nov. 9. Running time: 3 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

The Homebody - Linda Emond Dr. Qari Shah - Maz Jobrani Mullah Ali Aftar Durranni - Aasif Mandvi Milton Ceiling - Reed Birney Quango Twistleton - Bill Camp Priscilla Ceiling - Maggie Gyllenhaal A Munkrat/ Border Guard - Rahul Gupta Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh - Firdous Bamji Zai Garshi - Dariush Kashani Woman in Burqa/Mahala - Rita Wolf
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