There's something self-congratulatory about the program notes for Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul at the Taper. It's as if the people in charge of the program want the audience to understand that Kushner first wrote the play (or part of it) in 1999, and that it is not a cheap attempt to capitalize on world events since, but rather a surprisingly prescient cautionary tale against what would, in fact, come to pass.
And the play, set in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, sometimes has that same "I told you so" quality to it. A few of the play's lines - particularly one about Britain following America's lead in foreign affairs - ring almost too true to have been written in advance. This sense of smugness takes a certain degree of power away from the play. For, if it were presented as an after-the-fact attempt to explain the insurmountable divisions among the people of Afghanistan (particularly with respect to its Taliban regime), it might be a convincing and educational evening. But, instead, it is an after-the-fact warning, a wake-up call for an audience already awakened, and the best it can hope for is accolades for how darned accurate it had been.
That's the Kabul section of the piece, itself a two-act play which follows a young British woman who finds herself in Kabul. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the woman with the kind of cheery self-assuredness that makes her look like she belongs in Mamma Mia! and not as the fish-out-of-water Western European white woman nearly alone in a fundamentalist Islamic country. She's surrounded by a supporting cast of: her unsupportive father (Reed Birney, who never really connects with Gyllenhaal, but that's probably intentional); a local who acts as her guide (Firdous Bamji, who is quite plausible as a disillusioned poet); a useless representative of the British government (Bill Camp, whose nicely layered performance plays up the tragedy in a role that is basically comic relief); and a woman who has been repressed into near-madness by the Taliban (Rita Wolf, in a hand-waving shout-fest that seems overplayed-- although if there is any character with just cause to go overboard, it should be her).
The Kabul part of the play is preceded by an hour-long monologue - the Homebody part - in which Linda Emond (pictured at left) portrays a well-educated English housewife who rambles on about the state of her existence, her family, her place in the world, and her fascination with historical Afghanistan. It is a wonderful piece, and Emond's performance is masterly. At first, it seems as though there's something slightly awkward about the way she speaks - her voice seems almost too musical for the wordy streams that come out of her mouth. But later in the monologue, the Homebody confides to the audience that she recognizes the oddness of her speech (explaining, "I've read too many books"), and it's clear that the way every syllable is spoken is an intentional choice on the part of the actress in order to create the character. Homebody is also an extremely well-written piece. The monologue reveals the Homebody's persona not so much through direct revelation, but through her thought process and the way she expresses herself. It's alternately moving and hilarious, and ultimately quite intimate. After an hour listening to Emond, the audience knows the Homebody - her hopes, her dreams, her flaws, and her soul.
Apparently, Kushner originally wrote the Homebody piece alone and only later added the Kabul section of the play. Together, they clock in at three hours, forty-five minutes. While Homebody flies by thanks to the bravura performance of Emond, Kabul is rather less riveting. The audience has little connection with, or sympathy for, any of the characters, and the play itself is not the easiest to follow, including many conversations spoken in foreign languages, only some of which are simultaneously translated into English. Kushner requires his audience to meet him halfway for Kabul and asks them to recognize that the failure to communicate is an essential part of what he's trying to say about the situation in Afghanistan. But as the play passes the three hour mark, audience patience is waning. It is in the third act of the play that one character explains something in a manner that is intentionally written as boring. The point is mildly interesting, but Kushner takes too long to make it and, after three hours, a lengthy dull monologue is not something you should be throwing at your audience. Entire subplots of the play (such as the father/daughter troubled relationship) could easily be cut in the interest of bringing the show in under three hours.
There is a payoff at the end of Kabul, and the entire play is certainly thought-provoking, but ultimately, it isn't as moving as the payoff that immediately follows Homebody. The Homebody's monologue captivates, and its ultimate resolution is better than anything that comes after. To the extent Kushner wants to move us even after world events of the past few years, he should keep the play as a one-act.
Homebody/Kabul runs at the Mark Taper Forum through November 9, 2003. http://www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum (Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director), in association with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, presents Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner. Directed by Frank Galati. Set Design by James Schuette; Costume Design by Mara Blumenfeld; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Original Composition and Sound Design by Joe Cerqua; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA and Erica Daniels. Production Stage Manager James T. McDermott; Stage Manager Lisa J. Snodgrass.
Photo by Craig Schwartz