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Kelly Hutchinson and Yusef Bulos in Homebody/Kabul
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Although Tony Kushner insists that all plays are political, he is nonetheless our most political playwright. (Well, maybe after Arthur Miller.) He has long been restlessly aware of roiling national and global issues and has worked them into the dense fabric of his pieces, the most accomplished of which is the sprawling, untamed, and brilliant Angels in America. Therefore, it comes as little surprise that he has had Afghanistan on his mind for some time, and not just as a casual interest; he's bemoaned the country's devastation much longer than today's headlines have.

Yet he might not have written the "Homebody" segment of Homebody/Kabul if he hadn't received a call from a friend, the English actress Kika Markham, who needed a monologue for an evening she was preparing with her husband, Corin Redgrave, and sister-in-law, Vanessa Redgrave. Responding to Markham's request, Kushner began to hear an Englishwoman talking in his head--a superficially ordinary wife and mother who had developed her own interest in Kabul when she happened on a guidebook published in 1965, a volume called "An Historical Guide to Kabul" by Nancy Hatch Dupree. (Kushner himself had found it in a second-hand bookstore.) By the time the unnamed woman finished talking to and through Kushner, he had an astounding solo piece that might be classified with the spoken arias Alan Bennett has written over the years or with Wallace Shawn's self-flagellating spiel The Fever.

But it's more than that. The unidentified lady's peroration can instantly be ranked alongside the best monologues in English dramatic literature. The homebody, for that is what Kushner the woman (both "home" and "body" are meant to have many reverberations) is a chatterbox worrying in 1998 about living in a society "succumbing to luxury." One minute, she insists she's an optimist; the next, she reveals that she's on anti-depressants--and so is her husband. "I frequently take his pills instead of mine, so I can know what he's feeling," she says in one of her many amusing asides.

Sitting by a desk on which are situated a lamp with a low-watt light bulb and two stacks of books (Nick Ormerod is the set designer), the homebody reads excerpts from Dupree's comprehensive work, interrupting herself frequently to exclaim "I love love love the world" and to explain how her interest in Afghanistan deepened when she stopped into a London store in which a political refugee from Afghanistan with a mangled right hand sold various native artifacts. The gabby woman gives the year as 1998 and says that she knows her banter can be irritating. She happily admits feeling estranged from both her daughter and husband, and she delightedly shows off the colorful Afghani hats she purchased at the souvenir store as favors for a party she gave.

Remaining seated, she gets increasingly caught up in her obsession and eventually describes a fantasy she has about finding herself in Kabul with the shop owner. The homebody's meandering speech, flecked with polysyllabic words she can't stop herself from uttering and featuring a snatch of Frank Sinatra's "It's Nice to Go Traveling," is the poetic outburst of what could be called a British bag lady. (The bag in which the embroidered hats are contained sits on the floor next to her.) Yes, as she reads from the guidebook, she is educating the audience on three thousand years of Afghanistan history. Implied in the information passed along is the hopelessly entangled situation that Great Britain, the United States, and their allies face at the present moment. But the voluble homebody isn't simply a spokesperson for a cause. She is a woman both at home in her parlor and not at home there. Her fascination with Afghanistan is patently the result of her desire to find a place where she might belong. Kushner's title both connects her to Kabul and separates her from it, and his triumph in the piece is that he presents one English eccentric in such fine detail, explicating the innumerable crochets that add up to eccentricity. Yet he's also written a woman like many women--like many men as well--painfully adrift in life with nothing to cling to but the possibility of happiness elsewhere.

Linda Emond in Homebody/Kabul
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In a role that must terrify an actress at the same time as obsess her, Linda Emond is distinguished. Although in her first few moments she seems studied and does not entirely manage her accent, she gets past those hitches quickly and presents a character with as many faded facets as a dusty crystal chandelier. Adjusting her maroon sweater from time to time and opening and closing the book from which she reads, she is sometimes tentative, sometimes assertive, sometimes flighty, sometimes disturbed, sometimes angry, sometimes expectant. She travels though these moods while shifting positions infrequently and only rises towards the very end of her copious remarks to put on her coat. But where is she going? Breathing life into Kushner's figure, Emond creates a complex character to whom we are ready to listen for hours longer than the 40-or-so minutes during which she does carry on.

According to Kushner, once he had completed the homebody's remarks, he realized that there was more to say on the subject. And perhaps there is. But, in getting the second part of Homebody/Kabul out of his system, he may not have discovered the cogent message he believes is there. Indeed, the less said about "Kabul" the better; Kushner, who's famous for overwriting, should have said a good deal less. In "Kabul," he has lost the mystery of "Homebody" and concocted a prosaic, not to say polemical, drama. Milton Ceiling (Dylan Baker) and Priscilla Ceiling (Kelly Hutchinson), respectively the homebody's husband and daughter, are in Kabul, where the homebody has gone and apparently been beaten to death. Their aim is to bring the homebody's body home. However, they come to suspect that the unhappy woman is not dead at all but has instead renounced her past and entered into a love relationship with an Afghani doctor.

At odds with one another, Milton and Priscilla try to locate the missing woman in their own separate ways. Milton avoids action while experimenting with opium and then heroin as supplied by an unofficial British government aide, Quango Twistleton (Bill Camp). This aide professes to have fallen for Priscilla, who has sought the help of an Afghani poet named Khwaja (Yusef Bulos) to track her mother down. During the search, she's introduced to Mahala (Rita Wolf), the doctor's cast-off wife, a librarian who feels that nothing in life can be ordered outside of the Dewey Decimal System. In contrast to the homebody, Mahala wants to leave her native land for England. Without ever determining whether the homebody is alive or dead and after enduring a number of humiliating experiences, Milton and Priscilla succeed in getting Mahala to England. There, she's seen sitting at the desk where the homebody sat, saying what the homebody has said about always agitating her family. The two women, very different yet very alike, have changed places.

Kushner, then, is having his say on the irreconcilability of cultures which--irony of ironies!--are the same under the itchy skin. He makes his points, however, with a lumbering and long-winded determination that is entirely at odds with the inspired first part of the piece. And director Declan Donnellan, who directed the superb Royal National Theatre production of Angels in American and helps give "Homebody" such an inner glow, hasn't clarified the clutter much. To the contrary, he's allowed the actors to indulge in too much unconvincing hysteria. There's Baker as Milton falling about in his skivvies; there's Hutchinson as Priscilla tearing off a blue burqa and falling to her knees in her civvies while Taliban soldiers menace her. Wolfe, ranting in English, French, Afghani and Dari (or is it Pashtun?) as Mahala, seems the only one of the "Kabul" principals whose dilemma seems blood-chillingly real. And Nick Ormerod's set, consisting of blasted brick walls, comes to seem claustrophobic and boring as Kushner plugs his didactic points about East-West woes and family disaffection. In short, which Kushner isn't: "Homebody," yea; "Kabul," nay.

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