Oct. 13, 2003


Lost in Afghanistan

Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" feels both cobbled together and overwritten.


by Rob Kendt


There are sets. There are costumes. There are actors. But Homebody/Kabul, at the Mark Taper Forum, is less a play than a staged essay on Afghanistan, or rather, on what the West owes Afghanistan--a question whose dimensions have changed, to put it mildly, since 1998, the year Tony Kushner's agonized, and agonizing, treatise is set.


This inevitably dates Kushner's urgent report from a then-overlooked frontier, a crossroads of empires stretching back millennia. He doesn't portray an Afghanistan, or a Taliban, that abets terrorism or shelters Arab Islamists in its caves; his Afghanistan is instead the traumatized imperial victim which has internalized the oppressors' violence and, with the Taliban, seems intent on finishing the work of self-destruction on its own terms.


Whatever kernel of truth this picture might contain about Afghanistan even today--still an unstable and broken place, by all accounts, though no longer a monolithically repressed society--in staging it Kushner follows an unfortunate didactic model: Decadent Westerners (our stand-ins) receive a series of unsolicited lectures from sympathetic Third Worlders about the latter's misery, about the West's self-evident responsibility for it, about the West's moral hypocrisy in judging them, and so on. This sort of self-flagellating hairshirt-liberal docudrama is played out, sorry to say (I had hoped David Edgar's Pentecost was the last nail in its coffin), not least because it has very little insight to offer a world of stateless terror syndicates and portable nuclear weapons. Apocalypse looks different now, but Kushner is stuck in postcolonial spin dry.


Rough Outline

To be fair, so are many educated Westerners, which means that Kushner has some rich, conflicted human material to work with. The show's English quartet--the Homebody of the title, her distant husband and damaged daughter, and a seedy hustler who's gone native in Kabul--does provide the rough outline of a broken-family play, and some of the evening's few involving moments.


The show opens with a dazzling--rather self-consciously dazzling, it must be said--monologue, the commission of which by London actress Kika Markham was the germ of the piece. The Homebody (Linda Emond), who sits and regales us discursively for close to an hour, is a logorrheic bookworm obsessed with outdated knowledge and belief systems (not unlike Kushner, who opened Perestroika, Part Two of his Angels in America, with the "oldest living Bolshevik" conceding defeat but asking to see what new world-saving paradigm would take Communism's place).


Emond's performance has been justly acclaimed in previous runs of the show. She is convincingly confidential, and manages the considerable feat of giving this fluttery, self-described "mothlike" creature a peculiarly moving gravitas. But while Kushner's showy effusiveness here has a heady, occasionally breathtaking high-wire daring and ambition, the monologue finally feels precious, slight, overdetermined. Homebody's contradictions are too neatly contrasted, her digressions too signposted, her wisdom too sweepingly on-the-nose, her one-liners too knowing.


Unfiltered Outrage

These are symptomatic problems. The rest of the show's somnolent two and a half hours--which take us to the wrecked Kabul of James Schuette's set so that Homebody's daughter Priscilla (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and husband Milton (Reed Birney) can find meaning while seeking her missing body--feels overwritten, underwritten, or rewritten by turns, but always written. Most of the scenes just don't play; many could be reshuffled willy-nilly with no discernible difference in narrative effect. They tend to hit the same raw, grating notes of family discord, Western malaise, existential anomie, over and over, with a sampling of tart jokes, clever observations, historical exposition, and plot developments tossed thoughtfully along the way.


The lanky Gyllenhaal hurls herself heroically into Priscilla's dour confusion with a touchingly paradoxical joy and good humor, while Birney brings shading to a character as nearly immobile as his estranged wife. And Bill Camp withers visibly as his character's faŤade of officialdom recedes.


The Afghan characters get plenty of stage time but fewer contours. When not providing backdrop they're providing backstory--a Tajik guide, Khwaja (Firdous Bamji), is especially helpful in giving the lay of the land, while an angry librarian, Mahala (Rita Wolf), offers unfiltered outrage in French and English, in a scene seemingly designed to get on our nerves. Aasif Mandvi gives his Taliban mullah a stern macho cool that is just shy of camp; when he pauses before ordering an execution to tout his country's fundamentalist salvation, he's like a James Bond villain giving away his scheme in the last reel. And as a sensitive flunkie, poor Dariush Kashani is required to get laughs by quoting Sinatra lyrics, then garner our confused sympathy as he has a Walkman-induced breakdown.


I did admire Christopher Akerlind's stark lighting, and Mara Blumenfeld's costumes looked authentic. But I honestly couldn't discern the usually sure hand of director Frank Galati. Was the slow-moving turntable his idea? This unprepossessing scene-changing device unfortunately sets the pace for a show that just never gets going--a would-be relevant drama that, for all its high-flown language and immense intentions, stays as stubbornly grounded as an unexploded mine. Step on it, man.