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A CurtainUp Review

dy/Kabul Returns to New York

Homebody/Kabul Returns to New York
Firdous Bamji and Maggie Gyllenhaal
Firdous Bamji and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Homebody/Kabul's New York debut came close on the heels of the disastrous September of 2001. It seeded much talk about playwright Tony Kushner's almost eerie prescience, especially pertaining to one Afghani character's much quoted "You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York! Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York!"

Numerous revisions have untethered the play from the headlines and made it more timeless in that its impact is broader and more meaningful. Of the various versions and regional productions, the most recent (and according to the playwright, the final one) is the one that has wended its way from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to the current limited run at BAM's Harvey Theatre.

The final revision, besides making the the Homebody's daughter, Priscilla, a more satisfying and easy to identify with character, also clarifies Kushner's thematic search for a universal language of communication (the Khwaja's poems written in Esperanto express both the futility and hope of attempting to communicate through such a language) and Kabul's mysterious pull as the mythical tomb of that biblical father of all murderers, Cain.

For a trenchant and thorough analysis of the width and depth Homebody/Kabul has achieved since its 2001 New York debut, I refer you to Laura Hitchcock 's trenchant observations on the Mark Taper production which features the same cast, director and design team as the one at BAM (Go here to read it ). Having seen both this version and the original, however, I'll add just a few comments about the the new casting and staging.

Set designer James Schuette has created a much more subtle evocation of both beauty and wreckage, with a revolving platform stage flanked by tall bomb-devastated buildings and an elevator-like platform for the appearance and disappearance of props for the Homebody's scene as as well as several others. Christopher Akerlind and Joe Cerqua enhance the otherworldly realism with their lighting and sound design -- with the Harvey Theater's peeling walls and high balcony adding its own site-specific atmospheric touch to the setting.

Screen actress Maggie Gyllenhaal makes an impressive theatrical debut as Kushner's less sarcastic Priscilla, making this play as much about this wounded, young searcher as the mother who so mysteriously disappeared. On the down side, she lacks the vocal chops to be clearly heard throughout, which applies even if, as I was, you are sitting in the front section of the orchestra. Reed Birney, who now plays her father makes us see the confusion inside the emotionally restrained computer geek and doesn't leave it strictly to the Homebody monologue to give us a handle on the marriage and general family dynamic.

Speaking of that monologue-- Linda Emond seems even more amazing than I remember her, more touching and also funnier than I recall.

Despite all the changes that make this a richer and more polished theatrical experience than before, the one Mr. Kushner has not made is to shorten his sprawling epic to a more digestible length. It ran almost four hours at New York Theatre Workshop and it runs that long now and one can't help wishing that one of those seventeen revisions had entailed a forty-minute pruning.

That last quibble aside, the Homebody's declaration "Ours is a time of connection; the private, and we must accept this, and it’s a hard thing to accept, the private is gone . . .all must be touched". can be transposed to " All will be touched". In short, don't miss this chance to see Homebody/Kabul during it's all to brief time in New York.

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Frank Galati
Cast (* indicates actors are reprising parts per 12/01 review at NTWT): Firdous Bamji* (Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh), Reed Birney (Milton Ceiling),Bill Camp* (Quango Twistleton), Linda Emond* (the Homebody), , Rahul Gupta (Munkrat, Border Guard), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Priscilla Ceiling), Dariush Kashani (Zai Garshi), Aasif Mandavi (Mullah Afar Ali Durrani), Ali Reza (Dr. Qari Shah), Rita Wolf *(Woman in Burqa/Mahala) also Rod Gnapp (ensemble), Laura Kachergus (ensemble), Kamal Maray (ensemble), Arian Moayed (ensemble), Michelle Morain (ensemble) and Diana Simonzadeh (ensemble). Set design by James Schuette
Costume design by Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind
Original composition and sound design by Joe Cerqua
BAMHarvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene. May 11-15, 18-22, 25-29 at 7:30pm May 15, 16, 22, 23, 29 & 30 at 1pm

TICKETS--$25, 45, 65
Running Time: 3.5 hours. (Latecomers will not be seated during the first hour).

2001 coverage of Homebody/Kabul The Pre-review. . .  The Follow-Up

Linda Emond
Linda Emond, the half-title character, Homebody (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tony Kushner's latest play, Homebody/Kabul, began as a monologue for the British actress Kika Markham who is married to Colin Redgrave of the Redgrave family, famous for their often controversial political activism. First staged at London's Chelsea Theatre Center in 1999, the monologue was most recently read by Ms. Markham as part of a November 4th double bill in aid of the "Stop the War Coalition" opposed to the current hostilities in Afghanistan (at the Royal Court Theatre on the 4th of November). The first half of the bill featured Caryl Churchill's anti-war play Far Away.

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

---The Follow-Up

The present is always an awful place to be
--- The Homebody
The prescience widely attributed to Tony Kushner vis-a-vis this play is indeed evident throughout, from the time we meet the Homebody in her sitting room to the return to that same book covered table, but with the chair occupied by a very different woman. The Homebody's 55-minute introductory monologue has the ring of the Afghanistan History 101 course we now feel we should have taken at least four years ago when the America bombarded the suspected terrorist training camps in Khost, Afghanistan which is also the play's time frame.

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

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Declan Donnelan
Cast: Linda Emond (the Homebody), Joseph Kamal (Dr. Qari Shah), Firdous Bamji (Mullah Ali Aftar Durranni), Dylan Baker (Milton Ceiling), Bill Camp (Quango Twistleton), Kelly Hutchinson (Priscilla Ceiling), Dariush Kashani (Munkrat), Yusef Bulos (Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh), Sean T. Krishnan (Zai Garshi and Marabout), Rita Wolf (Mahala) and Jay Charan (Border Guard).
Set Design: Nick Ormerod;
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Movement Director: Barbara Karger
Dramaturgy: Oskar Eustis and Mandy Mishell Hackett
Dialect Coaches: Deborah Hecht and Gillian Lane-Plescia
Cultural/ Language Consultant: Nisar Ahmad Zuri
Running Time: 3 and 3/4 hours including 2 10-minute intermissions.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street ( 2nd Ave/ Bowery), 239-6200
2/07/01-3/06/02; opening 12/19/01.
Tue-Sat @ 7:30pm, Wed, Sat & Sun @ 1:30pm $50-$60. Rush seats ($10, 2 per person and during this show with a limit of "up to 10") go on sale 2 hours before performance. Senior rates ($28) available at box office.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
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