Trapped by history
'Homebody/Kabul' is a great play caught in strange times

Homebody
Linda Edmond addresses the audience in the first act of 'Homebody/Kabul.'
(by Joan Marcus)

by Bill Roundy

Tony Kushner's new play "Homebody/Kabul" occupies a unique historical moment. A play about Afghanistan developed over the last four years, it lands in a New York that, after the events of Sept. 11, has followed events in that country with obsessive interest.

Of course, this topicality has ensured a near-sold-out run for the show. Kushner, who won great acclaim, along with the Pulitzer prize and two Tony awards for his AIDS epic "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," has shown that he knows right where the world's attention should be.

"Homebody/Kabul" began when a friend asked Kushner to write a monologue for her. That monologue, which opens the play, comes from a middle-aged British woman identified as "The Homebody." During her hour-long rumination, she reads aloud from an outdated guidebook to Kabul, Afghanistan, while also telling a long, convoluted story of her quest to buy hats for a party.

That bald description sounds deadly dull, but the material itself is simply brilliant. Linda Edmond absolutely embodies the role, smiling at the audience with great charm while performing an astounding linguistic feat. For the Homebody does not simply speak -- she rolls out sentences, weaves them into knots, spikes them with archaic, sesquipedalian vocabulary, and sends her paragraphs aloft like balloons, watching them float over the slightly stunned audience, and then suddenly popping the endless digressions and distractions with a simple declarative sentence, such as: "A party needs hats."

"I speak… I can't help myself. Elliptically. Discursively," she apologizes. "I've read too many books … so my diction, my syntax, well, it's so irritating, I apologize, I do."

This acknowledgement at first seems like a clever aside from Kushner himself, saying to the audience, OK, no one really speaks this way, but won't you please indulge me with this character? But then, remarkably, and due in part to Edmond's striking performance, her wordplay becomes her defining character trait, an unusual but entirely believable quirk. For while the Homebody rambles about her anti-depressants, her husband's distance, and most importantly, her encounter with an Afghan junk shop merchant who makes love to her, who screams at her, who sells her hats (she tosses out several possible scenarios) the audience comes to realize that her verbosity is a way of keeping the rest of the world at bay.

Alas, the play never returns to that lofty height. In the next act, we find the Homebody's husband and daughter in Kabul, searching for her body. It appears that she has traveled to Kabul, following her guidebook and seeking some connection, only to be torn apart by a mob. We are soon plunged into an alien world where nothing can really be trusted -- she may be alive, she may be dead, she may have found the grave of Cain, she may have married an Afghan, with characters speaking, and sometimes shrieking, in Farsi, Pashtun, Dari, and English.

But even with all that activity, the final two acts of the play, at more than an hour each, feel padded. Kushner has noted that he has not altered the text to reflect the events of Sept. 11, but it feels like he should have. Anyone whose been reading the papers knows about the injustices of the Taliban, their mistreatment of women, the forbidden music, the opium production, the questions about the Northern Alliance -- so when these items are revealed in the play, that which might have been revelatory six months ago is simply old news.

INFO
Homebody/Kabul
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St.
Through March 3
Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $50-$60
212-239-6200

There is still a great play buried in those last two acts. Especially notable are performances from Dylan Baker, as the Homebody's husband Milton, grieving for his wife and baffled by his free-minded daughter, who roams Kabul, only occasionally wearing the required burqa. Bill Camp's portrayal of the plummy Quango Twistleton, an unofficial guide for British travelers (and opium fiend), is another delight, moving from odious to charming within a single sentence. And the set, by Nick Ormerod, is astounding, conveying the grandeur of ruined Kabul with broken brick walls spilling over the edges of the stage.

Kushner's latest is a sprawling epic about the West's confrontation with Afghanistan, but at this juncture, it feels like it's trying too hard to be comprehensive. While still a remarkable achievement, and filled with moments that justify the price of admission, "Homebody/Kabul" needs just another trimming to avoid being left behind by history, just like the city of its setting.

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This article appeared in the issue of:
January 11, 2002