Let me confess: I am not a big fan of Tony
I didn’t like "Angels in America." I wasn’t crazy about "Homebody/Kabul" when I saw the opening monologue several years ago. And I was no more impressed when I saw the play at BAM’s Harvey Theater on May 11.
Let me add, judging by the reactions of many in the audience, I may have held a minority opinion. During the monologue by Linda Emond, the Homebody, people laughed at lines like "A party needs festive acts," "The present is always an awful place to be," "I live with the world’s utter indifference" and "I read too many books."
People also laughed when she took a dozen or so Afghan hats out of a shopping bag and lined them up pyramid-style on her desk. They laughed even more when she put one on. It felt to me like someone was holding up a cue card I couldn’t see.
Curiously, the last time I saw that monologue performed there was very little laughter. Perhaps people hadn’t yet learned that it was supposed to be funny.
None of this is to say that Emond’s 53-minute monologue is not a tour de force. It is brilliantly written and performed with the skill (and speed) of a marathon runner. But it is also a test of endurance, both for the actress and the audience. And it’s probably the longest prologue in the history of theater. In it, the Homebody’s, revelations of her inner and outer life - her loneliness, her intelligence, her depression - are interspersed with personal reflections, as well as long historical passages from an old guidebook on Kabul, Afghanistan, so reminiscent of a college lecture that I had to restrain myself from taking notes.
But Kushner really establishes the Homebody’s character in the first 10 minutes, and unless you have a keen interest in Asian history, the next 40 minutes of the monologue are a mere gilding of the lily - or beating of a dead horse - depending on one’s view of the play.
Once Emond reaches the finish line, she packs up her hats and puts on her coat as the desk and the chair she was sitting on recede into the bowels of the stage, and the walls and furnishings of an Afghan hotel room move into view.
The first thing the audience hears is another monologue - this time delivered by Dr. Qari Shah, who explains in excruciating detail how the Homebody has been killed by fundamentalists incensed at the sight of her Western garb and portable CD player.
The Homebody’s husband, Milton Ceiling (Reed Birney), accepts his wife’s death with a very British stiff upper lip. After an obligatory crying jag, he seems ready to go home and go on. His daughter, Priscilla (performed by Maggie Gyllenhaal of the movies "Secretary" and "Mona Lisa Smile"), is a different story. Convinced her mother is still alive, she dons a burka and wanders the streets of Kabul.
Thanks to a clever revolving platform (the set design is by James Schuette), the play now alternates between Priscilla’s adventures in Kabul, where she meets Khwaja Aziz Mondanabosh (Firdous Bamji, who supplies some of the genuinely funny moments of the play), an Afghani poet who writes in Esperanto; and her father’s adventures in the hotel room, where a representative of the British embassy in Islamabad, Quango Twistleton (Bill Camp), introduces him to the delights of opium.
Even at this point the characters seldom talk to each other. Most of the time they deliver monologues (sometimes longer, sometimes shorter) while facing the audience. When one is finished the other starts. The Englishmen seem particularly good at this. They come to us straight from Kipling by way of Kushner.
Gyllenhaal is a little less verbose; her character is mostly defined by the loutish slouch and foul mouth of the angry post-teen, which she has perfected to such a degree she could be anyone and everyone.
But perhaps the substance of "Homebody/Kabul" lies elsewhere. Perhaps the most important character in this play is Afghanistan itself - that long-suffering country with all its mystery, cruelty and transcendent beauty. Yet even that mighty image is overshadowed by the playwright.
Kushner, whose facility with the English language (and perhaps French and languages of the Afghani people, both of which figure prominently in the play) is undeniable, may imagine himself as a latter-day Shakespeare. But it’s doubtful that Shakespeare would have ever considered inflicting a 53-minute monologue on his audiences, or that he would write a play that runs for four hours (with two intermissions).
Yet Kushner has crafted lines that do touch men’s souls, lines like: "This is a country so at the heart of the world the world has forgotten it." And one has the impression that if these characters were allowed to speak for themselves, they might have more of a story to tell. There’s a play somewhere in "Homebody/Kabul," if only Kushner would get out of the way.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum and Steppenwolf Theater Company present "Homebody/Kabul" on May 22 and May 25-29 at 7:30 pm; and May 22-23 and May 29-30 at 1 pm at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St. between Ashland and Rockwell places in Fort Greene). Tickets are $25, $45 and $65. For tickets or more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.