In the shattered world of post-9/11, Tony Kushner may have found his time. Kushner has long embraced the often scorned label of "political playwright," always searching in the work of others and in his own work for the socio-political armature that girds character and theme. In his A Bright Room Called Day, he charts German social democratic impotence at the rise to power of Nazism; in Slavs, he evokes the death of the Soviet Union in a corrosive, mordantly comic tale of chaos and corruption; and in his most acclaimed work, the two-part, nine-hour epic Angels in America, he presents a "gay fantasia on national themes" that places personal suffering and betrayal in the larger worlds of disease, homophobia, and reactionary politics.
How different from most of the new dramatic work by Kushner’s contemporaries! In the past few months New York’s Off-Broadway theatres have presented several excellent plays which deserve more attention than they have so far received. New plays such as Psych by Evan Smith, [sic] by Melissa James Gibson, and The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute focus on personal alliances and betrayals, on the angst of the interpersonal. They may suggest social criticism, but these critiques are muted and oblique.
Kushner, on the other hand, always foregrounds politics and history. He has found a unique dramatic voice in his enduring need for political action despite the loss of ideological faith. As the old Bolshevik, Aleksii Antedilluvianovitch Prelapsarianov, states at the beginning of Perestroika (part two of Angels in America): "The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us?" Release us to what? To the possibility of Change both personal and political, even if it is now apparent that real social change must be re-clothed in a new "beautiful theory" to replace the shed, dead skin of socialism. Like Osama Bin Laden, this new beautiful theory has as yet not been found, despite announced sightings. Kushner, however, will keep looking, and these questions undergird his impressive, if at times, ungainly new play Homebody/Kabul–at nearly four hours running time, his most ambitious work since the Angels epic.
The play has become a news item because its composition predates 9/11. Much of Kushner’s long fascination with Afghanistan and its neighbors resides in their remoteness despite geographic centrality; forbidding visual splendor is a natural theatre for places whose exotic names evoke the metaphoric power of the unknown: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Peshwar, Kabul, Jalamabad–before the Towers fell these names resonated for westerners with mellifluous mystery.
Now we nod with CNN knowledgability as we admire Kushner’s prescience and historical foresight. The play is in three long acts, the first a discursive monologue set in London just before the American bombing of suspected terrorist training camps in 1998, the last two essentially an adventure narrative set in the real city of Kabul not too long thereafter. The play was generated from what is now its first act. The British actress Kiki Markham asked Kushner to provide her with a monologue which she performed with critical success in London in 1999. The monologue is a brilliant tour de force by a middle-aged British matron who reticently offers glimpses of the pain of a loveless marriage as she conjures a dream vision of an ancient land and culture–a place of "strangeness and beauty"–which from the "dawn of history" has transcended its victimization. This information she has gleaned from an old guidebook which she has before her and from which she occasionally reads.
Alone on stage, the eponymous "Homebody" segues into personal anecdote (mostly about encountering a disfigured Afghan shopkeeper who elicited an impulsive purchase of native hats) and cosmic ruminations about the paradoxes of love and lovelessness, mystery and familiarity, isolation and interconnection, permanence and corruption. Plotless, beyond realism, this elegant stream-of-consciousness is an hour of Beckettian brilliance.
Kushner can’t go on; he goes on. The last two acts create not only a plot, but a complicated one at that. It seems that the Homebody indeed decided to leave home to visit the seat of her deepest fantasies. But once in Kabul she disappears. What happened to her is the mystery her husband, an uncommunicative communications expert, and her daughter, a neurotic, alienated young woman, strive to discover. The official Taliban report is that the Homebody was horribly killed by a mob offended by her apparent flouting of Muslim female propriety. But since her supposedly mutilated body has also disappeared, her family does not believe it. Soon, another explanation is offered by a native source: She has taken the veil and married a Muslim doctor, and her family is urged to take the doctor’s rejected wife as a kind of exchange. A late act of Taliban mercy toward this woman seems, in light of what we have discovered about that vile, misogynistic bunch, exceedingly unlikely.
Kushner, of course, layers this busy narrative with often fascinating historical fragments and observations on western and Afghan culture (there is dialogue in French, German, Esperanto, Pashto–the language of the Pashtuns–and Dari–the Afghan version of Farsi.) There are individual scenes of undeniable power–particularly the rejected Afghan wife’s rage at the West’s complicity in bringing the Taliban to power which contains the eerily predictive lines (written before 9/11): "We must suffer under the Taliban so that the U.S. might settle a 20-year score with Iran!…Don’t worry, they’re coming to New York!" Still, in the last acts, the plot moves the characters rather than the reverse, and the new major characters, the Homebody’s husband and daughter, are nowhere as fascinating as the woman revealed in the first act.
Some of this invidious contrast lies in the acting in this production. Although not British, Linda Emond is thoroughly convincing in her mystical matronly role. She impressively commands the audience by the conveyed intensity of her obsession. There is a mystery we strive to penetrate in this repressed but irrepressible woman. But the actors who play her family have but a modicum of her complexity; and they never are convincingly British. This is particularly true of the performance of Kelly Hutchinson as the daughter, Priscilla. It is not just a question of vowels; Ms. Hutchinsin is so American in the naked emotionalism of her reactions. (What might a brilliant young British actress like, say, Jennifer Ehle make of this part?) The minor characters fare much better, with excellent performances by Rita Wolf as the rejected wife, Bill Camp as a Graham Greenish heroin-addicted expatriate, and Yusef Bulos as a Tajik guide who writes poetry in Esperanto.
The current Off-Broadway production is directed with customary skill by the innovative British director Declan Donnelan who directed the successful version of Angels in America at the Royal National Theatre in London. One of the co-founders of the theatre group Cheek By Jowl, which specializes in renovative, stripped-down versions of classic plays, Donnelan here displays his familiar minimalist esthetic of deemphasizing the spectacular: a table and chair on a bare stage define the first act. The Afghanistan scenes are played against designer Nick Ormerod’s ingeniously clever but simple arrangement of jagged brick walls. The artistic problems here reside not with the director but with the playwright’s inability to tame his volatile material, and with some key problems with casting. Still, the faults pale: what other American–indeed, world–playwright could offer so ambitious, so all-encompassing a work on this scale, a work which moves so effortlessly between the personal and the political? Given our altered radar screens, we can surmise that next season’s new plays will not be so unconcerned with the geopolitical, and that Tony Kushner will no longer be a voice in the wilderness.