Zounds! Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul Is Our Best Play In Last 10 Years

How wonderful, in my line of work, to be able to usher in the New

Year by celebrating Tony Kushner’s great new play of our anguished times, Homebody/Kabul . I cannot think of a more

important drama in the last decade-since, in fact, the same awesomely

articulate dramatist astonished us with his vast epic of the 90′s, Angels in America . His new play is a

magnificent achievement on every challenging,deeply compassionate level. It

confirms Mr. Kushner’s place-if confirmation beneeded-asour

leadingplaywright,to whom attention will always gladly be paid.

Restassured,he must bedoingsomething right when The Wall Street Journal dismisses Homebody/Kabul as something sordid that

“might as well have been created by a Taliban playwright.” Mullah Kushner, the

mad warlord of Off Broadway, has firstly created a fantastic act of dramatic

clairvoyancy by setting the heart of the play in Afghanistan in 1998-2000.

There’s nothing opportunistic about this. It was written before Sept. 11 (and

Mr. Kushner has always taken an interest in a world beyond the safely, cozily

bourgeois). There are some scary moments. An educated Muslim woman, driven to

the edge of madness in Kabul during the era of American support for the

Taliban, threatens a Westerner: “You love the Taliban so much, bringthemtoNew York! Well,don’tworry, they’re coming to New York! Americans!”

But the ghostly timelinessoftheplay shouldn’t blind us to its

enduring value. In the drama’s narrative sweep and ambition, in its muted

yearning and desperate sense of search, Homebody/Kabul

is a journey without maps to the ravaged, symbolic center of a fucked-up

universe. Mr. Kushner, whose epic dramas are within the state-of-the-nation

tradition of George Bernard Shaw, links a public debate about the state of the

world to private wounds. (What saves Mr. Kushner from becoming another Shaw,

for one is surely enough, is his Jewish humanism). The troubled, lost

Westerners within Homebody/Kabul are

as much at endless war with themselves, and each other, as Afghanistan is the

hell on earth where people forget even their own names.

As always with this playwright of ideas and commitment, the play

compels us to look freshly at tinderbox issues that exist on several intriguing

levels. Homebody/Kabul is about lost

civilizations and unsolvable paradoxes, furious differences and opposites and

disintegrating, rotting pidgin cultures. It’s about desolation and love in

land-mined places, child murderers and fanatics, tranquilized existence and

opium highs, travel in the largest sense of the word-travel of the mind and

soul. To where? An unknowable mystery, perhaps, where all confusion is

banished. “A door marked nevermore that was not there before,” as the Afghan

fan of the golden songs of Sinatra puts it. “It is hard you will find to be

narrow of mind.”

Homebody/Kabul is also,

most crucially, about the clashing symbol and Babel of language itself. The

dreamy, seductive opening monologue of the eccentric middle-aged British lady

known only as the Homebody is dizzy with the pleasure of words. “Oh, I love the

world!” she declares (though that it isn’t strictly true). “I love love love

love the world!” But what this warm, dotty, intellectual misfit on antidepressants

loves more than anything is the power of words and the joy they give her. She

happily drowns in them, the more arcane the better, as if in search of lost

meaning.

Her mess of a daughter, Priscilla-adrift in her early 20′s after

a suicide attempt at 18-is angrily inarticulate and coarse. Words go sour on

her; they are of no use. Her unloving father, a repressed Britisher in his 40′s

named Milton, is a computer engineer whose science “joins the opposites.” But

then, the language of science invariably befuddles the layman.

During the play, we hear the opposing foreign tongues of Pashto,

Dari, French and, of course, English, when no one can literally make themselves

understood, except in watery translation. Language loses its meaning, corrupted

and       of all vitality and life, like

ethnic cleansing. The near-mad Afghan woman, Mahala, is a librarian in a

ravaged land without libraries. She has forgotten even the syllables of her own

language. The Tajik Afghan poet and guide, Khwaja, writes in the dead universal

language of Esperanto, a language without history-”and hence,” he explains

dryly, “no history of oppression.” And the Sufi marabout we meet along the way

is in search of a lost language of paradise, a path to knowledge and

understanding where words might be reborn in innocence.

At the surprising outset, Mr. Kushner throws down an ace with the

Homebody’s hour-long monologue, saturated with its dazzling distractions and

erudition. Has there ever been an opening to a major play like it? “Our story

begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3,000 B.C.,” the British lady in the

string of pearls begins, reading in her witty, animated way from an outdated

1965 guidebook about the ancient city of Kabul. There will be certain

scintillating diversions from her fluttery guided tour, most dramatically in

her breathtaking description of the day she purchased 10 festive party hats

made by people who believe in magic.

In the tiny London souvenir store, the Homebody imagines or

experiences-for both can be one and the same thing-that she can speak fluent

Pashto and, led by the maimed Afghan hat-seller to Kabul, makes love to him.

Wonderfully acted by Linda Emond, who’s just about as perfect as any actress

can be, the monologue closes with her eccentric Homebody singing along to

Sinatra’s “It’s Nice to Go Trav’ling.” “Such an awful awful man, such perfect

perfect music! A paradox!” she announces, only to stagger us again by turning

to a 17th-

century Persian love poem touched by the unearthly strangeness and beauty of

Kabul:

 

I sing to the gardens of

Kabul;

Even Paradise is jealous of

their greenery.

 

The Homebody/Kabul

opening has been compared approvingly by some to the Talking Heads monologues of Alan Bennett, which is like comparing

Mr. Kushner to the Queen Mother. Mr. Bennett is a beloved, eccentric British

miniaturist whose specialty is the theater of social embarrassment. Eroticism

isn’t within his narrowly appealing repertoire, nor the dangerous, fabulist

dreams that go to the central mystery of Mr. Kushner’s drama, which next takes

flight with the apparent death of the Homebody while visiting Kabul.

Was she hacked to pieces, caught in the crossfire of history when

President Clinton began bombing Afghanistan? Or is this urban romantic of drab

suburban London still alive? Is she a Muslim convert, now voluntarily devoid of

books-words!-her music-Sinatra!-and all things Western? Is she married to an

Afghan?

The second and third acts take us in search of the answers when

Homebody’s daughter, Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson, exactly right as the shrill,

graceless brat), searches for the body of her mother. Mr. Kushner is often at

his vivid best with characters for whom he has the least sympathy. Remember Roy

Cohn, the Antichrist of Angels in America ?

The stoned, confessional scenes between Homebody’s husband, Milton, and the

dissolute, self-obliterating Quango, the opium addict and unofficial liaison

for the British government in Kabul, are brilliantly performed by Dylan Baker

and Bill Camp, respectively. It’s like watching a meltdown of the damned.

There’s so much fine work to admire here: the sly, dry humor of

Yusef Bulos’ Tajik poet (and spy); the overwhelming tragedy of Sean T.

Krishnan’s Zai, in mourning for his homeland, as well as Mr. Krishnan’s

portrait of the marabout-for all such quests must have a Wise Man-who guards

the mythical grave of Cain in a valley of mines. The meeting between the

marabout and an ashamed Priscilla is particularly affecting; the dignified,

frightening authority of Firdous Bamji’s mullah could scarcely be better; and

the shattering performance of Rita Wolf as Mahala, the Muslim librarian driven

mad by Taliban killers-”I have nothing to read!”-brims with tears of unbearable

emotion.

I have done less than justice

to the director, Declan Donnellan, and his longtime designer, Nick Ormerod. The

most gifted Mr. Donnellan directed Angels

in America to great acclaim in London at the Royal National Theater. An

early disciple of Peter Brook, the internationalism of Homebody/Kabul holds no fear for him. His assured sense of rhythm,

the energy and pulse of the entire piece, are a tribute to his generous talent.

I have run out of space and superlatives. At close to four hours

with two intermissions, Homebody/Kabul

(at the New York Theater Workshop) isn’t for the Mamma Mia! crowd, obviously. But in such company as this, time

doesn’t matter. Besides, we all know of the 80-minute drama that lasts an

eternity. I must report I’ve rarely experienced a theater audience listening so

intently to a play that you can hear the silence-as if we, too, need to better

understand the world and grieve under its convulsive, weary weight.

As I say, Tony Kushner’s Homebody/

Kabul is the most remarkable play in a decade-without doubt the most

important of our time.