Tony Kushner's plays are often mistaken for political statements. Most of his works are set against specific political backdrops, from the Roy Cohn world of Angels in America to the civil rights struggle that sets the stage for Caroline, or Change. Homebody/Kabul is no different, taking place in London and Afghanistan in 1998 during the reign of the Taliban. However, none of these plays are really about politics any more than Star Wars is about space travel. At the heart of Homebody/Kabul is a family drama that happens to play out in a time and a place when connections between men and women, east and west, were particularly strained. The central drama is not about whether the Taliban was right or wrong, nor is it about the place of women in society - it's about finding connection. And unfortunately, Boston Theatre Works' production, directed by artistic director Jason Southerland, could use a lesson or two in connecting.
On paper, the play is a difficult piece to sell to an audience. The first act (of three) is an hour and a half long, of which the first forty-five minutes or so is simply monologue, just one woman speaking to the audience. This woman, played by Nancy Carroll, is a British "homebody," a housewife who busies herself by reading obsessively and talking to the audience. Her latest obsession, we learn, is Afghanistan, and she's been collecting books from off the beaten path. In particular, she's become fascinated with an out-of-date travel guide, from which she quotes extensively. Carroll plays the role as though she's sharing a private joke with the audience, letting us in on her schemes. Alas, she's been confined to Zeynap Bakkal's diorama-scale set, built as far away from the audience as possible, which even has side walls so at least a third of the audience had to crane their necks to even see her. We get it, she feels distant and confined, but sometimes symbolism gets in the way of telling a dramatic story.
The play picks up considerably once her monologue ends and the world's ugliest set-cover is whisked away to reveal a desert landscape. We're introduced to the homebody's husband, Milton (Bill Molnar), and daughter, Priscilla (Helen McElwain), who have come to Kabul to retrieve the body of their wife and mother, who apparently ran off to Kabul without much of a goodbye. Although Carroll doesn't appear again until the curtain call, she remains a palpable presence as each of her surviving kin struggle to make sense of their loss and figure out if she is even actually dead.
Molnar portrays a husband who immediately sinks into despair and stays there, without really showing us why. We're told he was never so close to his wife, so his descent seems more about grief at a lack of closure than anything else. McElwain is given the more interesting role of exploring Kabul to determine whether her mother might still be living, but again, her motivation for searching is obscured. Neither character ever really comes to life, each seeming more like plot devices necessary to take us on our tour of Afghanistan. When, along the way, elements of the family's past come to light, explaining the divide between mother and daughter, they feel like expository declarations rather than honest revelations. Kushner's writing can at times swerve into heavy-handedness, but Southerland's direction falls into every trap.
Luckily, the supporting cast enlivens the proceedings considerably. Foremost among them is John Sarrouf as Khwaja, the tour guide who leads Priscilla through the land and politics of Kabul, steering her both geographically and morally. Sarrouf brings a comic touch, the necessary spoonful of sugar to make the politics go down. Under his guidance, Priscilla is urged to help the plight of an Afghani librarian (Michelle Dowd), no longer able to exercise her intellect in the oppressive regime. Dowd takes her role as the personification of the oppressiveness of the regime too much to heart, never quite developing a character out of the political speechifying.
This is clearly a play meant to inspire thoughtful discussion, and perhaps even action, but in order for an audience to care about the issues at stake, we first must care about the characters at hand. And in a play about characters looking to connect with each other, it is particularly ironic that the one connection they never successfully forge is the most important one - with the audience.
Homebody/Kabul is presented by Boston Theatre Works at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street in Boston's South End, through March 19. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 3:00 [m, with a special Monday night performance March 14 at 7:30 pm. Tickets range from $20 to $30 and are available from BostonTheatreScene.com or by calling (617) 933-8600.
Boston Theatre Works continues their season with Take Me Out, a co-production with the SpeakEasy Stage Company in association with Broadway in Boston, April 29 - June 4.