Four years ago, when playwright Tony Kushner began writing a play set in Kabul, the ravaged capital of Afghanistan, no one could have anticipated the way the fates of the United States and that desperate, war-torn country would intersect.
Now, days before Kushner's new "Homebody/Kabul" officially opens at the off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop, the play already has attracted controversy. Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts delayed a decision on funding a later production of the play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, Calif.
Since then, New York Theatre Workshop has been inundated by journalists from around the world who are intent on finding out what Kushner, one of America's most outspoken contemporary playwrights, has to say about the place his country has been bombing for the past two months. The production, which has already been extended to Feb. 10, is virtually sold out.
But the creative team behind the New York Theatre Workshop production insists that there's nothing offensive or inflammatory about "Homebody/Kabul." "I don't think the play's at all controversial," says director Declan Donnellan. "Considering its subject matter, it is remarkably uncontroversial. Everyone wants it to be, but it isn't particularly politically controversial in any way."
Kushner originally conceived the work, which is set in London and Kabul in 1998, as a one-woman show. The opening act is a monologue in which a lonely middle-aged British woman -- the homebody -- reading from an outdated guidebook contemplates the tragic history of Afghanistan. Her Afghan reverie is interspersed with references to her distant husband, her disconnected daughter and her own quest for Afghan hats, which she has bought in a tiny London shop run by a disfigured refugee. The remainder of the play depicts her husband and daughter as they visit Kabul in search of her body. Officials tell them she was beaten and literally torn apart by a mob for violating the Taliban laws. But, perhaps, she has merely abandoned her previous life, converted to Islam and disappeared.
"It's a very questioning play, a very searching play," says Kushner, who marvels at the "outrageous synchronicity" of the work's premiere and the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. "It was not really written to be a polemic during wartime. It really wasn't written to be heard in such a superheated atmosphere."
In the version of "Homebody/Kabul" currently in previews, various characters make reference to Osama bin Laden, a 1997 massacre of an estimated 2,000 Taliban soldiers by the army of an Uzbek warlord and the number of casualties of a 1998 U.S. bombing of a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan.
In what may be the play's most stunning moment, an embittered Afghan woman rails against the world's indifference to the Taliban's reign of terror. "Where is America? You love the Taliban so much, bring them to New York," she rages. "Don't worry, they're coming to New York."
According to Donnellan, some members of the cast were concerned that the line might offend audiences here. "There was discussion about it," he says. "But, of course, the Taliban didn't come to New York. As far as I understand, it was al Qaeda, which is very different. That line is not that accurate. It's not some kind of funny Nostradamus thing."
Later, an Afghan character speaking to a British visitor asks, "What has the West ever brought us but misery?" He then adds, "Some of us would like to bring our misery to you."
The play was written long before Sept. 11, and Kushner says that none of it has been changed in light of the tragic events of that day.
"Some people think art shouldn't talk about things that are dangerous and of the moment," says the playwright. "Obviously I disagree with that, but I don't think anyone should make foreign policy because they've seen 'Homebody/Kabul.' "
Donnellan says it's important to remember that "Homebody/Kabul" is a historical play. "It's set in 1998," notes the Irish-born director. "It seems to be prescient, and I suppose in some respects it is. But I think we've been keeping ourselves in a fool's paradise in the West, in terms of the incredibly ill feeling that's felt toward us in large parts of the world. I think it's always very good to be aware of those feelings."
"Homebody/Kabul" was developed at the New York Theatre Workshop, a relatively small (fewer than 200 seats) East Village space where Jonathan Larson's hit musical "Rent" was developed.
Kushner's longtime collaborator Jim Nicola, an alumnus of Washington's Arena Stage who is New York Theatre Workshop's artistic director, worked with the playwright through many rewrites. He compares "Homebody/Kabul" to Shakespeare and the great Greek tragedies. Many people expect Kushner, an outspoken leftist who describes himself as a socialist, to write a play with a strong political viewpoint, but that's not what happened, Nicola says.
"It's a real literary work. It's not a political document," he explains. "What I love about Tony's work is that he talks about the individual human experience inseparable from the historical and social context. This young woman who goes to find her mother learns about growing up and understanding what life is really about because of the historical social moment that collides with her personal experience."
Ultimately, "Homebody/Kabul" may be about the inability of people to comprehend other cultures. "To me, the whole point of the play is that you have to surrender your arrogant assumptions about a country or a people," Kushner says. "Afghanistan defines complexity in its history. To try and arrive at a genuine engagement with another country, we have to surrender certain assumptions about what's true and not true that come from power and privilege."
For Donnellan, "Homebody/Kabul" is about learning to mourn. "When terrible things happen, people don't know what they feel. You can't even talk about grief in this city at this moment," says Donnellan. "The immensity of what has happened is so enormous, it's going to be a long time before people even begin to come to terms with it. I think it's so wonderful that at this time there's such a thoughtful piece that connects with Afghanistan."
Kushner, 45, is one of America's most highly regarded playwrights, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America," a two-part epic about AIDS during the '80s, ran more than seven hours. This week, he and Donnellan are working on trimming the running time of "Homebody/Kabul" from its current four hours before next Wednesday's opening night performance.
If they are unable to succeed, rather than being outraged by his new play, audiences may be wearied by it. And then, they may find themselves, like several people at a preview performance last week, snoozing in their seats.