An unrepentant post-facto fiddler with his texts, Tony Kushner has extensively revised his prismatic “Homebody/Kabul” for Frank Galati’s two-pronged Steppenwolf and Mark Taper Forum production (it moves to L.A. this fall). The result is a more unified, dramatic and plot-centered play rooted firmly in the British socialist-theater tradition that long has informed Kushner’s work. And thanks to a huge, revolving James Schuette set of Kabul ruins — lit by Christopher Akerlind with the intensity of a scorching sun — the work even has taken on some shades of epic, classical intensity.
Kushner has said this revision now will become the official version of the play. And for the bevy of colleges and regionals that likely will want to give this huge work a shot, it will be a more viable and satisfying play.
Still, lean, clear or concise “Homebody/Kabul” will never be. Still more than 3½ hours long (with two intermissions), its soul remains split between an indictment of colonial aggression and a meditation on how a country with a diseased political history can sap the will and life-force of even well-meaning, compassionate individuals. Like E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India,” “Homebody/Kabul” is preoccupied with the hopeless muddle caused by Westerners throughout history dabbling in places they can never hope to understand.
There are noticeable differences in the play from the Gotham original. The opening monologue now is immediately followed by a scene in Kabul — thus the guidebook-driven musings of the Homebody (now played by Amy Morton) do not feel like a distinct work but merely like a long first scene. Equally significantly, the character of Priscilla (Elizabeth Ledo) does not now believe that her mother is dead. For most of the play now, she thinks she is still alive and is looking for her mummy. This gives the play more of a whodunit narrative — although, given the density of the language and the swirl of interconnected cultural themes, it’s hardly Agatha Christie.
Morton offers a lucid and straightforward performance that’s intensely empathetic, if a little short on the dotty wit and irony enjoyed by the British upper middle class. Reed Birney’s Milton is much more recognizably bourgeois, which makes for a rather strange contrast. Still, Birney offers a powerful picture of a wrecked fellow in emotional crisis.
Ledo’s Priscilla is grounded in, well, American emotionalism — but this young actress has a breaking voice that gives the part plenty of emotional oomph. The best performances, though, come from Ali Farahnakain — fascinating and deliciously understated as Dr. Ali — and Tracy Letts as a grippingly quixotic Quango, the junkie Brit who functions as a symbol of the atrophied, hapless empire-builders.
Galati’s staging revels in its theatricality — and its humanity. But right-headed as they may be, any and all of these changes are less significant than the changing times. Watch this play these days and its impact is wholly different than in 2001, when it seemed to be ripped from the headlines. Kushner’s argument that the West turned a backwater into an irredeemable kind of hell is all the more disturbing now that the country is once again a backwater in the American consciousness.