Disorientalism

Readers of Graham Greene's espionage-cum-moralizing entertainments, like The Quiet American, will find a certain familiarity in these setups, and may very well be able to predict how at least one of them turns out. (There's even a tiny homage to Greene: The Tajik poet, like the hero of Our Man in Havana, used to sell vacuum cleaner parts.) Expectably, the surviving Westerners go home harrowed but physically unharmed; for the Afghan characters, the end is more complexly unpleasant. The body of Acts II and III, though, from the description of Homebody's "death" to her family's return to England, is like a long dramatic stall. Lumbering back and forth from Dad's drug experiences to daughter's Harry Lime-ish hunt for Mom, the scenes seem to recycle their material endlessly. The occasional flashes of data, valid as they are, feel stuck on, and the flashes of drama like bogus attempts to hype up excitement—even when, like Rita Wolf's frenzy as a woman desperate to escape, they have a ring of heart-clutching truth. Although Declan Donnellan's production, on an ingeniously simple jagged-brick set by Nick Ormerod, is always cleanly focused and apt, it tends to go sluggish just when the weakening text needs support. And while the Asian American actors playing Afghans generally do quite well, Dylan Baker and Kelly Hutchinson, as the English father and daughter, seem hopelessly at sea—in part, perhaps, because the roles themselves seem so factitious, so much a handy way to convey a Westerner's-eye view and nothing else.

One has to believe, first of all, that a woman who is presented to us as highly intelligent, philosophic even, and resolutely committed to deriving her experience from books, would suddenly drop everything and go to the most dangerous country in the world for a woman alone, where she would wander about with her head uncovered, listening to music on a CD Walkman. If she isn't trying to get herself killed (which the first-act monologue gives us no reason to suspect), she must lack all common sense or all awareness of her surroundings (notions equally contradicted by her monologue). The subsequent stasis unfortunately supplies lots of time for spotting other contradictions and improbabilities: that her husband, however emotionally estranged or screwed up, should passively lose interest in knowing what became of her; that he should bring his troubled daughter along to the same dangerous country; that her disappearance should arouse no apparent media interest beyond an initial report by Reuters (picked up by the Guardian, which you'd think would jump at the chance to send a reporter along); that there should be an elaborate story about the supposed Muslim husband needing to dispose of his first wife, when this is famously not a problem in countries ruled by Islam; and so on down the line.

The occidental tourist: Linda Emond in Homebody/Kabul
photo: Joan Marcus
The occidental tourist: Linda Emond in Homebody/Kabul

Details

Homebody/Kabul
By Tony Kushner
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
212-239-6200

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Undoubtedly some of these are answered somewhere in the play's warehouseful of words; undoubtedly others would be remedied by different casting or a different tack in the staging. But the sad fact remains that one doesn't come away from the theater feeling that the world has been re-envisioned, that we've been given a deeper look into the shattering events that have permanently altered our lives. That Westerners (and in particular Americans) don't approach the rest of the world on its own terms, or make the effort to perceive it from its own point of view, is a terrible shortfall in our lives. A theater alive to the world's concerns is one way to begin remedying it. For that reason, let's be glad that Tony Kushner writes and Homebody/Kabul exists. And now—let's demand of him that he bring to a whole play the intense clarity he can find in one searing moment. Or, if not, that he make his plays much shorter. Afghanistan, he tells us in the first act, took 4000 years to get where it is today. As 9-11 also proves, we're not living in a world where we can count on that much time.

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