NEW YORK — Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul is no less current than the daily reports from the war in Afghanistan, even though the play was four years in the writing and finished before Sept. 11.
After a brilliantly wrought first act that manages to embody the confusion of the West, along with its obsession about Afghanistan, within a single monologue, the play unwinds in a tangle of cross-purposes, in which nothing is as it seems.
If the aim of theater is to incite emotions and stir discussion, Kushner has succeeded. However, it's less certain that he's made up his mind as to his intentions. Kushner has created a dream play in which characters appear never to return, daily objects take on ominous significance, and dialogue conjures up illusions as often as the truth.
One of Kushner's talents as a playwright, political commentator, and philosopher is to write dialogue alternately as a weapon or a gift, and as a reflection of the human psyche. The characters speak in symbols laden with violent subtexts, to suggest that ordinary existence is fraught with buried danger, like the land mines of Afghanistan. Any misstep will cause a detonation, blasting one's life to bits. The leading characters trade in safety for a terra incognita as a matter of course, depending on the kindness of strangers instead of the people they profess to love.
Set in 1998, in London and Kabul, Afghanistan, the play concerns an English housewife, The Homebody, whose sense of self-esteem depends on a daily regimen of "green and creamy-white" antidepressant pills.
In a heart-breaker of a performance by Linda Emond, which discloses unbearable loneliness within the nonstop chatter, The Homebody delivers a 55-minute monologue straight to the audience at the tiny New York Theatre Workshop as if she were holding a conversation over a pot of tea.
The Homebody is fascinated with the Afghanistan of the past, so much so that she leaves her husband and daughter to travel there on a precipitous trip alone. The second and third acts take place in Kabul, where her family has come after her, only to be told of her brutal murder for walking the streets in Western dress and unescorted by a man, in defiance of the Taliban decrees.
The Homebody's daughter, Priscilla (Kelly Hutchinson), searches for her mother, guided by a Tajik Afghan poet (Yusef Bulos), or so he claims, and protector. Her father, Milton (Dylan Baker), remains in his hotel room to plumb his shame, egged on by alcohol and opium doled out by an expatriate Dane (Bill Camp), employed by the British government.
British director Declan Donnellan has assembled a superb cast, which keeps the surprises coming throughout the nearly four-hour running time.
Aside from the theme of the confrontation of two societies with few ways to understand each other, Kushner deals with the obligations within a family relationship, the meaning of history for a civilization in ruins, and the notion of corruption of power. What gives the play added urgency is Kushner's dramatization of the desperation of people living under a totalitarian regime and how survival comes to supersede any moral laws.
Kushner has proved himself a prophet as well as a dramatist, first with his two-part Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels in America" in 1993, which dissected American society at a time of wrenching transitions, and now with "Homebody/Kabul," which probes the causes of our nation's most pressing current challenge.
'Homebody/Kabul' runs through March 6. Other productions will run at Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, R.I., March 15 to April 21, and at the Berkeley (Calif.) Repertory Theatre, April 19 to June 9.