Kabul, With More Perspective

Tony Kushner’s Afghan drama finally gets breathing room from 9/11

One of the things playwright Larry Kramer distinctly remembers about reviving his AIDS play “The Normal Heart” 19 years after its debut was Tony Kushner forbidding him to rewrite a single word of the original script.

Of course, now that Kushner has followed suit, resurrecting his much younger play “Homebody/Kabul,” which premiered in December, 2001, the rules have changed. Kushner’s alterations to “Homebody”—now famously at draft number seventeen—are positively Wildensteinian.

But the contradiction inherent in Kushner’s “Do as I say, not as I do” model for Kramer is akin to the multitude of contradictions beating at the heart of his play and it’s this dichotomy that works best in Kusher’s work. And frankly, who could do what he does?

The good news here is what was genius about the play in the first place—namely, the Homebody—remains intact while what was not so good—namely, everything that followed—is markedly improved.

The play opens with a sustained grace note—the elliptical Homebody, seated, chatting about her books. The extraordinary actor Linda Emond created this role and again delivers her best here. This London housewife loves to read, and moreover loves to convey what she’s reading to us, the audience. She compares her reading to a moth, “impassioned, fluttering, doomed” and needs only her chair to hold herself and a table to hold her books. Yet she holds us captive for almost an hour. The Homebody chats about her current book of the month, Nancy Hutch Dupress’ “A Historical Guide to the City of Kabul.”

But to say this monologue is just about an outdated travel guide is akin to calling the Koran just a book of prayers. Emond flits effortlessly from the Aryan passage through the Hindu Kush to a delightful box of party hats. Halfway through, she complements her mint green cardigan by placing a pink one atop her head.

This hat, along with a bit of Frank Sinatra music, is the only bit of stage business she’s afforded. She’s a model of restraint, especially for a playwright prone to raging angels and singing buses, yet Emond is no minimalist. Her speech comes off as less a monologue and more like one beautifully winding sentence.

The labyrinth she creates with words makes her a maximalist, to be sure, but one that’s well aware she’s not alone on her journey.

“I’ve read too many books,” she apologizes early on. “It’s very hard, I know, to listen.”

Gradually, she introduces her family. There’s her distant husband, a man whose antidepressants she samples for insight into his remoteness.

“My husband cannot bear the sound of me,” she states plainly.

Eventually she seizes on the idea of the Old Testament’s Cain and his final resting place, which legend holds is located in Kabul.

“Murder’s grave” she calls it and tells us she would like to see it.

And then she’s off, in a swell of Arabian music. The bare background gives way to James Schuette’s evocative, red-skied Kabul by means of a clever rotating stage. The Homebody grabs her raincoat and simply disappears into a bombed out Kabul street.

Could the Homebody have throw down a more daunting challenge for the actors following her? But, follow the Homebody they do, for the next three hours in a foreign land—in non-translated Farsi, Russian, Pashto, French, even the failed international language Esperanto, whose history is exhaustively detailed by Kushner, who must be a bit of a homebody himself.

Indie goddess du jour Maggie Gyllenhaal seems at least up to the challenge. As the Homebody’s daughter, Priscilla, she’s afforded quite an entrance by the repressive Kabul. She sits behind a sheet in the corner of a dingy hotel she shares with her father, listening in silence as one of the theories of what has become of the Homebody—namely, that she was quartered while being dragged through the streets—is floated by a local man. Once he’s gone, the curtain is pulled to reveal Priscilla. The Homebody’s daughter is a chip off the old block, evincing the same faith in the printed word as her mother.

“She is dead,” Priscilla tells her father, Milton. “Reuters has reported it.”

Later, Gyllenhaal has fun playing hide and seek in a moss green burka on the streets of Kabul, quickly finding herself in a situation precariously close to that of her mother’s when an Afghan soldier trains his gun on her. Unfortunately, Gyllenhaal’s British accent comes and goes as it pleases and she struggles, at least early on, to the theatrical equivalent of a close-up until she harnesses the spotlight that shines from within during the play’s final act. Still, she makes an impressive stage debut.

Reed Birney fares even better as Milton, the absentee husband and father. Though he never leaves the Kabul hotel room, his opium-fuelled journeys are every bit as adventurous as his daughter’s. The aptly named Bill Camp turns in a Cheshire cat of a performance as Quango Twisleton, the ex-pat bureaucrat enjoying his Kabul station primarily for its proximity to poppies. As the Timothy Leary to Birney’s Milton and Casanova to Gyllenhaal’s Priscilla, Camp trots around the stage almost gloating over his plum part. As Milton’s smacked-up confidante, he’s soon able to confront Priscilla with her transgressions, a move that against all odds but quite believably drives the young woman to him.

The outstanding Rita Wolf, as a sophisticated Afghan librarian, also embodies the many contradictions of Kabul. Across a variety of language platforms, she expresses the seething fury of the oppressed even while folded into her couch.

“Yesterday, I could not remember the alphabet,” she rages.

Soon, she becomes a virtual Homebody Double, laying the ground for the play’s horrible, fluorescent-washed denouement.

“Homebody/Kabul” may be enjoying the benefit of vastly improved circumstances. Kushner’s play originally popped up in that tender moment just after 9/11, when most New Yorkers were not ready for a walk down Taliban-oppressed Afghan streets. Declan Donnellan’s New York Theater Workshop production was all hard edges, a belligerent daughter wandering from confrontation to confrontation.

This BAM production’s director, Frank Galati, enters the scene like a much-needed Bounce dryer sheet, softening everything. I’d hate to see Galati turned loose on a Mondrian exhibition, but his skills are well employed here. The play improves greatly from his finger tracing every hard edge and smudging it ever so slightly. As a result, “Homebody/Kabul” has become a much more layered piece of theater.

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