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Linda Emond in Homebody/Kabul
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Tony Kushner will tell you that the version of Homebody/Kabul now at BAM is the play's 17th draft. The statistic won't take by surprise anyone who knows Kushner's obsession with rewriting. John Guare, aware of Kushner's efforts on this project, quoted to him Paul Valery's remark about works of art never being finished, only abandoned. Guare, who doesn't rewrite much, believes that Kushner should move on -- which he's always doing, of course, since he seems unhappy unless juggling multiple projects at any given time.

As someone who's only seen two drafts produced, I'm not certain I want to tell Kushner to knock it off. I believe in Kushner's genius enough to think he might eventually get the expansive play into ideal working order. On the other hand, I'm not certain I want to see successive drafts (I'm convinced, based on the evidence, there will be some) until I'm assured by trusted third parties Kushner has done the trick.

If Kushner has slogged through 17 drafts of Homebody/Kabul, I might note that this is my second draft of a review of the exhilarating, exasperating play in two parts and three acts. As before, I believe the first third of the play, the Homebody monologue -- written thanks to a request from English actress Kika Markham who needed something for an evening of monologues -- is one of the glories of English-speaking soliloquies. A prolix Englishwoman, who's found Nancy Hatch Dupree's 1965 guide to Afghanistan, reads from it and continuously interrupts herself to explain how her growing fascination for the far-flung country has affected her life. Unable to stop expounding on terms like "Greco-Bactrian Confusion," she addresses the audience with an ease and affability belying her conviction she's someone to be avoided.

Although Markham owns the piece that side of the Atlantic, Linda Emond has been doing it this side for most of the seven years Kushner has been refining the play. She has now turned it into even more of a tour de force than it was in 2001, when she first played it in Manhattan. She's so comfortable delivering the aria that now she finds every nugget of humor in the Homebody's disquisitions. Grabbing her lime-green sweater around her (it was maroon last time) and sitting at a small, cluttered table, Emond -- as a character pointedly given no name -- allows enthusiasm to transport her, then to give in to sudden dismay. As she displays 10 encrusted Afghani hats she's purchased for a party and talks about the merchant who sold them to her, the Homebody is gestures and laughing eyes. That's until she repeats the response the merchant gave her when she asks about the three missing fingers on his right hand. Emond goes misty when describing a fantasy she has about taking the man's restored hand and following him through Kabul where the two of them make love.

Kushner may have worked and reworked the Homebody's speech, but short of a line by line comparison of versions (which I'm not inclined to do), I can't itemize changes. Nevertheless, the 45-minute speech felt perfect then and still does. Not a word in it feels extraneous, which is part of the fun of a character who keeps insisting she's too verbose and will try to stop herself. Indeed, the Homebody works theatrical magic, which is especially intriguing because as she begins perorating, she talks about people who believe or believed in magic and how that magic has dissipated.

When the Homebody ends her enchanting spiel, she rises, puts on her coat and walks into the ravaged but prosaic Kabul set designer James Schuette has erected and Christopher Akerlind turns somber lights on. The blending of the first part into the second is a change from the earlier New York Theater Workshop mounting. Is it Kushner's idea or director Frank Galati's? As if foreshadowed in the Homebody's discourse on magic and its vitiation, the magic of the first half almost immediately begins to drain. It's as if a rainbow slowly transmuted from its evanescent colors to shades of gray. That may be a truth of today's grim Kabul, but what about sustaining the theater magic, which Galati can't seem to do any more than dramatist Kushner?

Kushner, who wrote Homebody on assignment from a friend, has now moved to the play he felt was waiting to emerge from the monologue. Having journeyed to Kabul, as she has already hinted she was compelled to do, the curious Homebody vanishes and is thought to be dead. Her reluctant husband Milton Ceiling (Reed Birney and rightly downcast) and impatient daughter Priscilla (Maggie Gyllenhaal, making an impressive local stage debut) are in Kabul -- Priscilla suspicious of the reports being given them of her mother's demise, Milton ready to accept his wife's demise and get the hell out.

Firdous Bamji and Maggie Gyllenhaal
in Homebody/Kabul
(Photo © Craig Schwartz)
Because their agendas are diametrically opposed and because they clash on most issues, Milton and Priscilla pursue different ends. Priscilla explores Kabul with a guide called Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh (Firdous Bamji, earnest and mysterious), a poet claiming to have written 300 poems in Esperanto he wants to get to the West. Milton spends his time in a bathrobe playing host to a shabby English official, Quango Twistleton (Bill Camp, as deliciously camp as first time around), who also deals in opium and heroin. Eventually, the Ceiling pere and fille are told the Homebody is alive and married to a local, whose first wife, Mahala (the ferocious, fine Rita Wolf), a librarian, wants to go to London where she can resume the reading denied her under the ruling regime. They comply, which leads to the rather touching conclusion where Mahala has replaced the Homebody at that table with its cheery reading lamp.

Giving credit where it's due, Kushner's alterations have improved the work. (Should the play be retitled Kabul, or Change?) Nothing, of course, can improve the playwright's roving mind, just broaden it. That he has done the kind of research on Afghanistan that he's done without (like the Homebody at first) traveling there is astounding. He draws allusions from everywhere (one Afghani quotes lyrics to Frank Sinatra songs); he has characters speak in a half-dozen languages; he points an accusatory political finger. By this draft, he has explained as he hadn't before deeper understanding of the complex Homebody-Priscilla relationship. The play is now very much about a maturing child's attempt to find who the parent really is. Kushner's added some stunning lines. And once again, the startling parts are those in which the furious Mahala vents.

Yet, the play is little more animated in the Kabul two-thirds than it was previously. It seems to sink in the region's desultory moods. There remains something arbitrary about the scenes Kushner chooses to write in following the Ceilings through their frustrated stay. They're dully repetitive, in particular the sequences where Milton is introduced to the joys of opium by Quango, a bloke whose redeeming quality is being one of those funny lost souls. At this draft, Priscilla even finds joy in memories of her mother, but that aspect of her development doesn't seem to follow from her former loose-ends attitude. Just as Milton and Priscilla Ceiling go to Kabul only to be thwarted in their search for the missing Homebody, the finished -- and finished -- play Tony Kushner is searching for still seems out of reach.

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