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Angels in Afghanistan 

A controversial, uneven, and eerily timely production at the Berkeley Rep

Wednesday, May 1 2002
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Homebody/Kabul is better than Angels in America. Exaggeration? Well, no. I didn't like Angels in America, so I may be damning with faint praise. But after eight years of wishy-washy work Tony Kushner is now back in form with an ambitious (if overlong) political drama on a topic so timely it seems almost offensive. The new play is about Afghanistan. It shocked Manhattan audiences last December with a line about the Taliban "coming to New York" that sounded either like evil prophecy or plain treason. The play is not, as the Wall Street Journal harrumphed, something that "might as well have been created by a Taliban playwright," but it also isn't the best American play in the last 10 years, as the giddier critics in New York have pretended. Kushner's anti-Western politics should be familiar to anyone who's ever been to college. After Sept. 11 that tone seemed a little ... off, and there was a tense moment last year when the National Endowment for the Arts shelved a grant for the Berkeley Rep to stage the play. So Homebody/Kabul has arrived in Berkeley in a cloud of political hype that it doesn't quite deserve.

If Muslim fundamentalism hadn't made itself so relevant last year, H/K would have caused a little stir and then faded into the night. Kushner simply has good timing. He wrote the first part, Homebody, in 1998, as a 75-minute monologue -- a sprawling speech that shows a British woman sitting in a comfy chair and traveling (in books, memory, and imagination) to Afghanistan, to distant nebulae, to a hat shop in London, and back in time to the conquests of Alexander and Tamerlane. Later, Kushner added Kabul, a three-act detective story set in motion when the same woman travels (by plane) to Kabul, and disappears. Both parts were finished before Sept. 11, and the only American president Kushner had in mind to criticize was Bill Clinton, for firing a missile at Khost, near Pakistan.

Michelle Morain plays the Homebody, who unfortunately has no name of her own. She sits, in a cardigan, next to a small table with a lamp. Reading now and then from a Kabul guidebook, she tells us about an Afghan merchant in London who sold her "party hats" -- colorful, glass-beaded pillboxes known as pacoolis -- and whose mutilated fingers inspire a reverie about Afghanistan's violent past. The speech is a tour de force, lyrical and beautifully timed. Morain performs it with an earnest intensity that overshadows the rest of the play. It needs editing, of course -- sometimes Kushner's polemic voice rises to the surface and you have the idea that Morain's just reading one of his pieces from The Nation. But it isn't Morain's fault that someone should have given her less to say.

When she finishes, the scrim behind her dissolves to show a bombed-out slum of Kabul. Kate Edmunds' set design and Peter Maradudin's lights make this transformation graceful and dramatic. After so much babble about Afghanistan, war, and the Taliban, now we're suddenly there, without an intermission, in the capital of what was, until recently, an enemy nation -- and the critic's heart skips a beat, because you don't get to see current world politics dramatized in full color very often on the stage. We learn that the Homebody has been mutilated by a mob of fundamentalists after walking through Kabul without her burqa. (She was also listening to Sinatra on a Walkman.) We hear a doctor describe the state of her body to her husband, Milton, and her fucked-up daughter, Priscilla, who has to wait behind a curtain until the doctor leaves.

Heidi Dippold plays Priscilla, awkwardly, as a sassy blond Londoner in jeans and a navel-baring top. She insists to her uptight father that she must go searching through the streets of Kabul, right now, for her mom. She's reckless enough to remove the burqa and light a cigarette in public, which nearly gets her killed by a long-bearded Talib -- but she manages to hear a rumor on the streets that her mother isn't dead. The story goes that the Homebody has converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. Then it gets strange: The same man's Afghan wife would like to leave her marriage and go home with Priscilla to London. This flimsy situation fuels a desperate search for the Homebody.

Kushner, in other words, pulls an important punch: His drama doesn't live up to the sweeping promise of the first act. He relies on a dime-novel plot to steer his characters to a symmetrical ending and a banal conclusion about East and West. It's not that the play is uninteresting or unengaging. Kushner's details about Tajiks, Pashtuns, and American support of the Taliban (to fight opium, to build a pipeline) are well researched. Charles Shaw Robinson also plays a vividly uptight Milton; Hector Correa is a convincing Talib; and Harsh Nayyar does beautiful work as Priscilla's polite and charming Tajik guide, who also writes Esperanto poetry. The trouble is that the play feels hollow. Around the third hour you realize that Priscilla's quest is a sham, and that Priscilla, in particular, is just a jumble of traits that Kushner finds convenient. Between her scrappy London rudeness and her tendency to use a bookworm's words (inherited from her mum), Priscilla seems unfocused, and Dippold struggles to bring her to life.

Kushner wants to fuse George Bernard Shaw's polemical-epic style with the personal drama of Tennessee Williams or Chekhov, but the experiment falls apart, like Angels, because his characters are so thin. (By Angels I mean both parts, including Perestroika.) He still hasn't found a way to fuse his politics onto real people without distorting the people. There are signs of growth, however -- at least none of the characters here is a malicious cartoon, like the Mormons in Angels. Last week on the radio Kushner admitted to drag queen envy, to feeling like a nerd when he'd rather be fabulous, and the same tension exists in Homebody/Kabul: He wants to make up for his pedanticism by spinning a fabulous, world-consuming epic. Sometimes, in fits, he succeeds.

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