Afghanistan by Stagelight

Afghanistan by Stagelight

A review of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul.


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.

The transition from the lonely housewife's antic mind playing upon the great and tiny themes of the opening to the Brechtian drama of the last two acts asks a lot of an audience, but Kushner is used to waging war on the way things "have to be" in the theater. It's one reason that, even without having a major play produced since 1992's Angels in America, he seems to be among its principal saviors right now. Angels, among other wayward things, ran to something like seven hours on two separate nights; its ambition was huge, and the result was a vast, chaotic kaleidoscope that managed to bring nothing less than an entire zeitgeist into momentary focus. Homebody/Kabul has big ambitions too, so it's not surprising that its author is willing to court our hostility in pursuit of them. One hallowed rule of stagecraft holds that after a play has established its contract with the audience, the rules of the game can't be changed. Homebody violates its contract by abandoning the character, mood, pace and manner of address that have brought us into the evening.

Thematically, the shift makes sense. As the father and daughter struggle to understand the Homebody's act, they are able, by the end, to move from their domestic hurt to the universal disaster of Afghanistan. It is a painful struggle–especially for the audience, who must wait a long time for these thin characters to, so to speak, get out of the house. The daughter, who suffers from the therapeutic malaise of her inarticulate generation, is particularly annoying. This seems a deliberate choice on Kushner's part, but it's hard not to wince whenever she opens her mouth. It surprised me at first that a playwright who rarely uses stereotypes without shedding some light on them, whose plays are literature on the page as well as the stage, has written a character so easy to dismiss. Her father is more appealing because he has the outlandish bigotry of his class; but he too is a stock figure, enlivened by Kushner's willingness to give him better lines than he deserves. These are the sleeping souls of the Homebody's world, unmoved by any pain but their own, so perhaps they need to be thin until the very end, when they are transformed by love and suffering and loss. But their journey is so arduous, and often so irritatingly melodramatic, that by the time the transformation comes, it has too little force. Whether some of this is a matter of the pacing in Declan Donnellan's directing, it's hard to say.

The mullahs, poets, prophets and especially Mahala, the errant Muslim wife (played so well by Rita Wolf), leaven the action even when they are speaking in untranslated Pashto, a risky theatrical device meant to increase our discomfort and confusion. The playwright's insistence that many of the characters speak over each other at crucial moments is less effective, even if we get the point of the Babel. I much preferred two running jokes about universal understanding: Priscilla's guide speaks and writes in Esperanto: "It is a language that has no history, and hence no history of oppression," he says. "A refugee patois. The mad dream of universal peace. So suitable for lamentation." A seller of hats and a former actor (Zai Garshi) speaks in the universal currency of Sinatra: "The Taliban, yes? They go to extremes with impossible dreams, yes? And so my record player is smashed and all each of the LPs of me, Popular Frank Sinatra Sings for Moderns slips through a door a door marked nevermore that was not there before. It is hard you will find to be narrow of mind." Witty lines on serious matters, reminding us that this playwright has not given up on the possibility that mainstream entertainment can address big issues, that serious politics arise out of very basic needs, that theater can be a force for transformation. The issues of Homebody/Kabul may be complex and irresolvable, but the dramatic mission is not. It's as simple as Brecht's response to an interviewer who once asked him what theater should do: "Try to discover the best way for people to live together," he said. How many living dramatists other than Tony Kushner would know how to begin to do that?

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