Kushner touches timely nerve in "Homebody/Kabul"

Tony Kushner, an American Jew, is a playwright of conscience.

Consider "Angels in America," in which AIDS, homosexuality and American greed served as the landscape for Kushner's piercing observations and imagination.

In "Homebody/Kabul," the playwright takes us on a different odyssey, no less grand in scope, to the inscrutable land of Afghanistan where a dysfunctional English family searches for meaning amidst the rubble of world politics. In its Midwestern premiere at Dobama Theatre, through October 6, director Joel Hammer and a well-honed ensemble make credible the violent clash of cultures in Kushner's challenging drama.

The play was written in response to the Clinton administration's bombing of Afghanistan in 1998, America's retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa. September 11, 2001, and its aftermath render "Homebody/Kabul" both prescient and dated in its observations about pre-war Taliban rule and anti-Western sentiment.

Running three-and-a-half hours (including two intermissions), the lengthy, voluble theater piece remains a work in progress. Kushner continues to tweak the script for scheduled openings in Los Angeles and Chicago in 2003.

Episodic in structure, the play suffers from a surfeit of ideas rather than a lack of them, and its characters, save for the Homebody, are mostly disagreeable in nature.

The story concerns a middle-aged English woman, the Homebody of the title, who travels to Afghanistan in 1998 and mysteriously disappears. Her husband and daughter go to Afghanistan in search of her.

The first act consists primarily of a monologue spoken by the Homebody, a comfortable, but miserably lonely and unhappy housewife who suffers from depression and lack of purpose, until, in her voracious reading, she stumbles upon an outdated tour book of Kabul.

Nan Wray mostly meets the grueling challenge of the Homebody's hourlong soliloquy, as she shifts gears between a peroration of Afghan history, personal misery and romantic fantasy. One feels a rush of empathy when Wray's homebody suddenly utters, "My husband can't stand the sound of me."

Kushner revels in language, and the monologue, filled with poetry and philosophy, is nothing short of brilliant.

The play, which begins in the Homebody's London home, next shifts to Kabul. Russ Borski's serviceable, rough-hewn set, with a map of Afghanistan as a backdrop, does not suggest an English sitting room, making the transition unclear.

After the monologue, "Homebody/Kabul" dissolves into a succession of scenes teetering between soap opera and polemic. It is as if the diagonal line in the title divides it into two different plays. We never see the Homebody again, and the reason for her disappearance (she has been either been murdered or becomes a Muslim,) remains unknown.

In the second act, Milton and Priscilla Ceiling, the Homebody's uptight husband and angry daughter, encounter an assortment of Afghani characters, including a Taliban minister, the religious police, a hermit, a doctor, an ex-actor, a poet and a feminist. Some of these roles are played by persons of Asian and Middle Eastern descent, both actors and non-actors, who strengthen the storytelling.

Robert Hawkes perfectly captures the priggish husband, Milton, who, at first visibly distraught by his wife's disappearance and presumed violent death, is quickly seduced into snorting opium and heroin by a disenchanted quasi-official Brit hooked on drugs. Scott Plate inhabits the depraved and dissolute English aide, Quango Twistleton.

While her father gets high, Priscilla dons a burka and embarks upon her own quest. She soon lands in the company of a Tajik poet and guide-for hire who writes poetry in a strange language called Esperanto which nobody understands. Bernadette Clemens' Priscilla is a cauldron of resentment as the unloved daughter, but her character is shrill and unsatisfactorily written.

Ali Alhaddad delivers a well-nuanced performance as the soft-spoken poet, Kwaja, whose lyrical explication of a ravaged Afghanistan is heartbreaking.

Kushner's play ripples with paradox, including the paradox of language, the chief means by which we communicate and fail to communicate. Having the Afghan characters speak in a foreign-sounding tongue thrusts the audience into the role of strangers in a strange land, and the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what is being said or how to respond. To Priscilla, her mother's elliptical speech and arcane words were a way of keeping secrets from her.

In her search for her mother, Priscilla also meets up with a former Afghan actor who now sells hats. (The Taliban has closed the theaters and all acting is forbidden.) Raj Sinha's litany of Taliban restrictions, interspersed with lines from Frank Sinatra songs, is extremely funny and an apt metaphor for the love-hate relationship between East and West.

Jean Zarzour gives a strong performance as the vitriolic Mahalla, a former librarian, who lambastes Priscilla about the West's ruination of her country. "You love the Taliban so much … Well, don't worry, they're coming to New York!" she cries.

Despite the debilitating heat opening night, a sudden chill swept through the theater, proving the fiercely intelligent Kushner a prophet of our time.

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