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|A CurtainUp Review
Homebody/Kabul dy/Kabul Returns to New York
By Elyse Sommer
2001 coverage of Homebody/Kabul The Pre-review. . . The Follow-Up
In the final version (at least final enough for its world-premiere) that monologue is the first act of three. It is delivered by the Englishwoman who represents the pre-slash Homebody of the title. After the monologue, which is set in England, the play moves on to Kabul . A one-person rumination that lasts for a full hour and two follow-up acts that bring the total running time to almost four hours (that's with cuts from the even longer early versions) was an unlikely formula for a sold-out, immediately extended production. But life has been turned upside down since September 11th and Kushner's play became an eerie case of art anticipating life.
Afghanistan is no longer a setting more likely to induce yawns than curiosity. And so, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, this work by a playwright respected for his imagination, passion and linguistic gifts has become an experience that has the sort of must-see immediacy that's become the exception rather than the rule in the theater.
The play has attracted attention all over the world resulting in shortage of tickets for the press as well as public. However, things did ease up a bit when the run was extended into early March.
Even though its length makes a Broadway run a very long shot, other productions seem certain. Two are already set: Berkely Rep, despite some hesitancy by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Council on the Arts, has been awarded a grant to produce the show for a run set from April 19th through June 9th. Also moving forward with a planned production is the Trinity Rep in Rhode Island.
-- Elyse Sommer
Linda Emond's rendering of that lengthy prologue is a bravura performance reminiscent of that master of the monologue, Ruth Draper. While Draper used to specialize in a parade of characters, Emond plays only one, the British homemaker whose only excitement comes from books. However, she crams every aspect of that lonely, frustrated woman's life into the hour during which she dominates the stage. She connects with the audience by her reading (and asides) from an outdated guidebook (An Historical Guide to Kabul by Nancy Hatch Dupree several actual paragraphs and sentences were used and altered by the playwright with permission). She opens the book as if reading us a bedtime story: "Our story begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3,000 B.C.. . . I am reading from an outdated guidebook about the city of Kabul, in Afghanistan. In the valleys of the Hindu Kush mountain. A guidebook to a city which we all know, has undergone change." Periodically putting down the book, and with just a few bits of stage business, she weaves her own reactions and, inevitably, the circumstances in her life that have drawn her to this obscure book.
In a marvelous finale that's sufficiently prophetic for this section to be almost free-standing she sings along to a recording of Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me." Her comment on Sinatra —"an awful man . . . such a perfect voice"— is of course also true of the once beautiful city of Kabul.
Perhaps it was expecting too much to hope for a play which would explore the worldwide ramifications of troubled Afghanistan with the same imagination and vigor as Angels In America dramatized the political fallout of the AIDS epidemic. But the timeliness of setting and Kushner's usual feast of linguistic riches notwithstanding, Homebody/Kabul lacks the unforgettable characters and vigor of that Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning fantasia. While there is much to admire the only thing great about it is its ambition, and its great (too great!) length.
The play is basically a mix of historical background —the monologue— and intrigue — the search for Homebody who has followed Sinatra's voice and gone off to Kabul where she has mysteriously disappeared. The search for the missing (murdered?) Homebody brings her emotionally alienated husband and daughter (Kelly Hutchinson and Dylan Baker) face-to-face with a culture as fractured as the brick walls of Nick Omerond's set. The trouble is that the monologue, despite its humor and Ms. Emond's amazingly nuanced delivery, doesn't quite stand on its own and the second and third act have the feel of rooms built onto that foundation without benefit of a solid overall architectural blueprint and workmanship.
Still, Homebody/Kabul bears many of the hallmarks of Kushner's mastery for creating a nightmarish dreamscape. The word-smitten Homebody, the frustrated Afghan librarian (Rita Wolf) and the poet guide (Yusef Bulos) who might be a spy, bring to mind some of the more unforgettable characters from Angels In America.
The audaciously long prologue also works well to establish language as an essential element holding together the play as well as the culture on which it focuses — language being the weapon to inspire, to teach, to communicate and, conversely, the inability to understand each other's language, to read and study (except as dictated by the Taliban). Homebody loves language, the more obscure the better. Her electronic engineer husband relies on techno-jargon. The languages heard in Afghanistan — from Pashto to Dari to French and English, to the dead but universal language of Esperanto in which Khwaja (Yusef Bulos) the Tajik Afghan poet and guide writes — all symbolize a sort of linguistic version of ethnic cleansing, turning Kabul into a modern day Babel.
Declan Donnelan, who directed Angels in America in London, has given Homebody/Kabul the best possible production. He has assembled a fine cast, with several standouts—. notably, Emond's Homebody, Rita Wolf's Mahala, Bill Camp's wonderfully named drug addict Quango Twistleton, Yusef Bulos' Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh. Dylan Baker as Homebody's husband, Milton Ceiling, has a fine scene as an English version of the "ugly American" but Milton's descent into "paradise lost", helped by liquor, opium and heroin, is one of the more egregious examples of scenes being drawn out as if in slow-motion. As the daughter, Kelly Hutchinson, besides slipping uneasily in and out of her English accent, is so annoying that you can almost understand her father's rejection. Except for Emond, whom one yearns to see in some form after her disappearance, none of these characters are even distant cousins to the likes of Roy Cohn, Louis Belize and Prior.
Nick Ormerond, who has worked with the director in the past, has created a unit set that is atmospherically lit by Brian MacDevitt. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design nicely enhances the sinister mood.
In the final analysis, the play's linguistic acrobatics are too uncontrolled. The playwright stopped his process of paring the script (originially five hours) too soon. Another hour would go far towards greater clarity and dramatic impact. For all its poetical words and stew of dialects, we leave Homebody/Kabul without having been either newly enlightened or deeply moved. --Elyse Sommer
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