Disorientalism

Let's give Tony Kushner the praise he deserves. Finished before 9-11, his latest play draws an emphatic circle on the map around the place where, it turned out, world-scale trouble was brewing. As for the nature and causes of that trouble, politically he has them pegged: Within the densely worded text of Homebody/Kabul, you can find most of what you needed to know (and now do know) about Afghanistan, some (though not all) of what you need to know about Islam, and some (though surprisingly less than you'd expect) of what you should be pondering about our relation to these things. That his prophetic powers didn't extend to anticipating the giant scale of Osama bin Laden's revenge on the West for existing shouldn't be held against him: He's a playwright, not a latter-day Nostradamus. It's impressive enough that his big guess was right, and that in analytic terms he's carried it out handsomely, with the factual thoroughness and articulate passion you'd expect from the author of Angels in America.

Given the pathetically small number of plays in English—or any other Western language—that deal with matters this big, and that have even a smidgen of Kushner's aptitude or promptitude, what I've just said is extremely high praise. I'm glad Homebody/Kabul exists. I should like to write in a theater where plays of its ambition and breadth were a common occurrence, just as I should like to live in a society where people thought, daily, about how the parts of this world interconnect, and how the decisions of our daily life can alter life on the opposite side of the globe. The traumatic shock of 9-11 brought that society an inch closer to existing, for an instant; if we're very lucky, the residual waves of that shock will have edged us in some saner directions, and our future won't be as dire as it sometimes looks.

I'm not certain, though, to what extent these remarks have been provoked by Homebody/Kabul, which helpfully coincides with what's on the world's mind, but, as playwriting, doesn't do much to enrich it. As everybody knows, the English actress Kika Markham commissioned a monologue from Kushner three years ago; it grew into the hour-long first act of this three-hour-45-minute event. The monologue, an elaborate, syntactically rococo meditation on Afghan history spoken by a pensive, daydreamy mature Englishwoman identified only as Homebody, is a sort of polemicist's stunt piece, in which the writer goes on evasively for pages, feeding you bits of background through endlessly coiling crisscrossed sentences, till you're so lulled by the drone that he can slap you awake with his actual point. To give Kushner full credit, the point—the set of vehement contradictions the woman imagines an Afghan shopkeeper in London shouting at her as she buys hats from him—is complex, disorienting, and tragic, not simplistic. Linda Emond, who at other moments must visibly struggle to sustain the character's British accent and sweetly scatterbrained persona while steering a coherent course through the interwoven spiraling clauses, grabs this moment the way someone impersonating the Statue of Liberty would grab a torch, and for an instant the entire world is alive onstage and Tony Kushner is a great political dramatist.

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

It is, tragically for us, only an instant. If what precedes the monologue's arresting moment is (despite its delaying tactics) movingly pensive and informative, what follows after the intermission is almost all padding and improbability, some of it secondhand, and much of it increasingly removed from the subject. The Homebody, it develops, has gone to Kabul, at what might reasonably be considered the worst possible time in its long history for an unaccompanied female tourist. It's 1998, just after Clinton's bombing of the terrorist camps; the Taliban are solidifying their rule and anti-American feeling is at its peak. The Homebody is English, not American, but impoverished, isolated, war-battered Afghans are unlikely to detect the niceties of accent and behavior that convey the difference. At the top of Act II our heroine has vanished, never to reappear. Depending on which story you believe, she has either been hideously murdered (though not, an Afghan official reassuringly tells her husband, "dishonored"), or she has renounced the West and taken a Muslim spouse.

Her husband, a high-tech communications expert with a considerable inability to communicate, believes the former story, wondering only why, if it's true, her remains have mysteriously vanished. Her daughter, rebellious, adventurous, and with a history of mental disturbance, believes the latter story, and goes out in search of Mum, only occasionally remembering to keep her burka on for fear of ending up a victim herself. The British having cut all diplomatic connections to the Taliban, Dad and daughter are left in the hands of a "non-government organization" worker, an Anglo-accented fellow of ambiguous ethnicity and even more ambiguous motives (an amusingly oozy performance by Bill Camp). While he introduces hotel-bound Dad to the dubious pleasures of opium and heroin, daughter falls in with a more persuasively dignified local guide (even more persuasively acted by Yusef Bulos), a Tajik poet who writes in Esperanto, or so he says, and begs her to take his poems to a colleague in England. He's the one who supplies the complicated story of the Muslim husband, along with a woman discarded by said husband, who wants to go back with them in place of the missing Homebody.

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.

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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