‘Homebody/Kabul:' September 11 Affects Its Effect

"Homebody/Kabul" runs through June 23 at the Berkeley Repetory Theatre. Call 647-2949 for Ticket information.

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Clocking in at 3 hours and 45 minutes, the play "Homebody/Kabul" lasts about as long as it would take to fly from one end of the war-ravaged country to another. Perhaps from an airplane, thousands of feet off the ground, a foreigner would get a better sense of what Afghanistan is like than one would from watching Tony Kushner's play, which sees its West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Rep.

But getting to know Afghanistan is not the point of "Homebody/ Kabul." Kushner wrote his 1998 play, with now-familiar prescience after the events of September 11, to delve into the geopolitical and sociocultural recesses of times and places-but mostly, people-that have West meeting East. West is a broken British family, East is just about all of Afghanistan. In "Homebody," directed by Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, the place where the two meet is disorienting for both parties.

In 1998, a play like "Homebody/ Kabul" would have likely been received as fresh and alarming. Today, it reads like a manipulation of reality.

It's a two-in-one play. For nearly an hour, The Homebody (a delightful Melissa Morain) sits in an armchair at her London home, a excrutiatingly verbose middle-aged woman with intellectual dreams and a pathetic life of faded books and anti-depressants. She is obbsessed with Afghanistian - obbsessed.

Then we are transplanted to Kabul, August 1998, days after President Clinton orders bombings of suspected terrorists camps in Afghanistan and Sudan. A man and his daughter arrive in search of a missing woman, The Homebody. When a shady doctor tells them the woman was brutally killed, the daughter, Priscilla (Heidi Dippold), is unconvinced.

Courtesey/Berkeley Repertory

Kushner then thrusts his audiences into a labored dramatic tapestry as Priscilla searches for her mother, introducing us to characters that regrettably border on becoming caricatures, so wonderfully 'Eastern.' The third central character is Mahala (Jacqueline Antaramian), the play's resilient Afghan survivalist, who emerges as the redeemed emigre.

The worst of the Afghan characters is Khwaja (Harsh Nayyar), the street-smart 'guide' that enters by saving Priscilla from a Taliban footsoldier and then shows her around Kabul while cracking jokes and pushing original poetry written in Esperanto into her bag. Culture and politics get their treatment in trochaic speeches dropped into tense or meandering scenes too obviously to be ignored as such. In a speech that practically belongs in the theater program for its unintended irony, Khwaja gets serious and scoffs: "You have to take home with you nothing but a spectacle of our misery."

Production-wise, "Homebody/ Kabul" is a solid outing. It's Kushner's text that leaves the tastes sour. It's topical and that's exactly the problem. Because our media have saturated us with images, assessments and opinions on Afghanistan since September 11, "Homebody/ Kabul" seems to struggle under its own weight, appearing almost childish, an empty fatigue of emotional statements from a city with enough problems of its own to be the backdrop of a story that is basically about broken Westerners pursuing embarrassing dreams.

In this way, "Homebody/ Kabul" makes its mark, becoming remarkable because it ends up as the most unrealistic realistic play about current events probably ever set to the stage. Kabul, represented by a holey mass of mesh and crumbling concrete, is a barren metaphor for the sometimes misguided approach that West takes when it travels in the opposite direction.


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