There is a moment at the end of the hourlong monologue that constitutes Act I of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul when I realized I'd be happy to sit and listen to this mentally promiscuous, verbally curious London housewife (played so superbly by Linda Emond) for another two hours. Or more. Like many theatergoers, I was soon to wonder why her thrilling meditation on history, calamity and Afghanistan had to be followed by the events of Acts II and III, when the Homebody has vanished, leaving her husband, daughter, a British aid worker and various Afghans to play out their all too obviously caricatured lives. Kushner wrote the opening monologue as a stand-alone piece for the English stage, after all. Surely it could have been left at that.
Or could it? The problem, if we are to take this theater piece as something more than a dutiful twitch of political concern, is that the Homebody and her monologue require some consequence to her wandering thoughts. For one thing, these thoughts are way too winning, and Kushner, whose writing oozes charm like toothpaste from a tube, knows the dangers of charm. The woman is talking about suffering, after all. She is speaking to us from the security of her living room, safe in her culpable life, dilating on the most hopeless of catastrophes. And we are listening from the comfort of our theater seats. The setting is 1998 and the United States has just bombed supposed terrorist camps in Afghanistan, one more episode inflicted on a place that, as a character later comments, is not so much a country as a populated disaster. The Homebody wants to tell us about buying Afghan pakools as party hats for her guests, for God's sake. She needs to describe finding them on an unnamed London street in a shop run by a man who has had three of his fingers neatly severed by–well, by the mujahedeen, by the Russians, by the Northern Alliance, by, in short, the calamitous history of his country. She is not at all immune to the horrible dislocations that the hats may represent or to the transformation they can effect on her life, or to the corruption of culture into consumerist junk. She reads to us from Nancy Hatch Dupree's heartbreaking 1965 guidebook to Kabul, goes from there to the antidepressants she and her husband take, and on to infant mortality rates and back again to the guidebook. In between she serves up the many cast-off bits of knowledge left by history's losers that she treasures as important clues to understanding whatever it is she needs to understand. She loves the world; she makes all the connections. The act ends. As I say, dangerously charming because the question remains: What exactly does a person do when faced with a calamity of historic proportions? When we are so overwhelmed, she says, we succumb to luxury. Or to words.
Instead, she goes to Kabul. Thus the unlovely Acts II and III begin with the aftermath of this latter-day Clarissa Dalloway's disappearance. She may, following one local account, "have been torn apart to pieces" by an angry mob, or she may have traded places with Mahala, a Muslim woman, so that, according to her hilariously xenophobic husband (the superb Dylan Baker), who has set off with their daughter (Kelly Hutchinson) to find her, "she can spend the rest of her life in what must never have been more than a Himalayan bywater at the best of times, draped in parachute sheeting stirring cracked wheat and cardamom over a propane fire." The point is she's gone, and her family can't mourn her any more than we do. From now on there is nothing for them (or us) but the harshness of history, as daughter Priscilla and her guide (Dariush Kashani) search for her mother's body, while her father moves swiftly from whiskey to heroin holed up with Quango Twistelton (superbly played by Bill Camp), an aid worker left over from the great colonial joke. Even the gruelingly spare sets make you want to leave your seat.