'Homebody/Kabul': Land of Lost Chances
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2004; Page C01
In "Homebody/Kabul," playwright Tony Kushner gives himself a tough act to follow. For the first hour of this absorbing exploration of broken hearts and shattered nations, we're in the thrall of the Homebody, a hilariously literate Englishwoman with a desperate urge to flee the suffocating normalcy of life in London.
Through her restless imagination, she has already begun her escape, and as she reads on and on to us from a frayed guidebook to the Afghan capital, her relish for the exotic, faraway city becomes infectious. She makes it sound mysterious and alluring, another Casablanca. In Brigid Cleary's smashing performance, the Homebody is irresistible, too, vivacious and wounded and balmy and comic, a character so vivid that you're not inclined to encourage her to yield the stage.
The marvelous hour in Cleary's company is a whole play unto itself. That 21/2 additional hours of exposition are to follow is the tricky assignment Kushner must navigate in "Homebody/Kabul," the 2001 play receiving its Washington premiere from Theater J and Woolly Mammoth. To the extent that the Homebody's aura lingers long after she has vanished, the work retains an emotional force. The panic at her disappearance in Taliban-controlled Kabul, where her husband, Milton (Rick Foucheux), and daughter Priscilla (Maia DeSanti) go in search of her, feels authentic.
But it's also the case that "Homebody/Kabul" grows murkier and less interesting the further it strays from an accounting of her fate. (The play, it should be added, is never uninteresting.) It's only in the emergence later on of an Afghan character, a tormented wearer of the burka (the gifted Jennifer Mendenhall) who has her own urgent need for escape, that the play regains its powerful hold. The other pivotal theme, the troubled Priscilla's quest for peace with her mother and with herself, is as shrill and overindulged as the mystery of the Homebody is fascinating.
At the time of its opening three years ago at the New York Theatre Workshop, "Homebody/Kabul" was Kushner's most ambitious work since the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning "Angels in America." "Caroline, or Change," a musical memoir of race relations in Louisiana that is moving to Broadway next month, may now own that distinction. "Angels" was the playwright's wrath-filled elegy to an America in the grip of AIDS. "Homebody/Kabul" is also concerned with grief, the despair at the loss of a loved one, of a culture, of identity, of personal freedom. Like "Angels," too, it's a grab bag, a story assembled from a passel of perspectives. But fewer of the perspectives in "Homebody" muster any real intensity. The Afghan voices, in particular, do not always fulfill the dramatist's mandate for radiant individuality.
Kushner has tightened the work since its New York debut, and as a result of John Vreeke's taut mounting on the compact Goldman Theater stage in the DC Jewish Community Center, the production usefully sustains an air of unease. The casting of some of the Afghan roles is questionable -- the shifty-eyed Taliban minister of Conrad Feininger, for instance, comes across as a B-movie sinister guy -- and too many attempts are made by too many actors to show off in their freak-out "moments."
Still, an American playwright of Kushner's skill and passion taking on the geopolitical tragedy of Afghanistan could not make for an evening of more consequence. Set in the late 1990s and written before 9/11, "Homebody" is like a tour of ruins -- in this case, the rubble left by 3,000 years of steamrolling conquerors and superpowers.
The Kabul extolled in Cleary's guidebook bears little resemblance to the armed camp it has become under the Taliban. Lewis Folden's set of stone and metal fencing, lighted ominously by Colin K. Bills, conjures a colorless combat zone. The only visual relief comes from an unlikely source, the splashes of color sported by the Afghan women in burkas; as designed by Helen Q. Huang, the costumes are made to seem heavy, ungainly, a burden.
Much of the plot revolves around Milton and Priscilla's efforts to unravel the mystery of the Homebody's disappearance. Foucheux's Milton is a finely wrought puddle of a man: sobbing and cowering in his hotel, he withdraws into a solipsistic heroin-fed stupor, assisted by Quango (Michael Russotto), a British expatriate so debauched he rifles Priscilla's backpack for knickers to sniff. It is left to Priscilla to venture out and try to find the truth, a quest that leads her to Khwaja (Doug Brown), who may or may not simply be the mild-mannered, Esperanto-spouting poet he claims.
Kushner leads us from the lush, cerebral world of the Homebody to the scarred, barren landscape of Kabul so that we, too, can feel the loss of what Milton and Priscilla had and never appreciated. Priscilla, however, is such an unpleasant mess -- embittered, hostile, arrogant, unbending -- that it's difficult to accept her as a touchstone for the play. Though DeSanti conveys Priscilla's pique convincingly, in defiant drags on a cigarette and little foot-stomping tantrums, she has little more success in opening Priscilla up to us than have other actresses in the role.
Much more accessible and rewarding is Mendenhall's Mahala, an urbane woman who has not borne the years of intellectual deprivation at all well. Once a librarian -- like the Homebody, she's obsessed with books -- she has been driven to the edge of madness by the strictures of misogynistic religious rule. Mendenhall finds the vulnerability in Mahala, and the fury; her anger is as palpable as Cleary's joie de vivre.
What Vreeke's production makes so admirably clear is the bond these confined women, gasping for new life, share. It's the most vital link in the play, the one that most persuasively justifies the backslash in the title: in Mendenhall's Mahala, a Homebody can truly be found in Kabul.
Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner. Directed by John Vreeke. Sets, Lewis Folden; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Dave McKeever; costumes, Helen Q. Huang. With Michael Kramer, Ted Feldman, Aubrey Deeker. Approximately 3 hours 30 minutes. Through April 11 at Goldman Theater, DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.