- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

NEW YORK — The title is tantalizingly topical: "Homebody/Kabul." Yet Tony Kushner's new play, set in 1998 and beyond, was written well before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is the culmination of a more-than-20-year interest by the playwright in the tortured history of Afghanistan.
"I started thinking about Afghanistan when I was a student in college," the 45-year-old Mr. Kushner says over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and whole-wheat toast in a Greenwich Village restaurant. From the Soviet invasion in 1980 to the collapse of the country into chaos after the Russian pullout to the rise of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, he has followed events with more than a casual interest.
"When the Taliban appeared, I was horrified by their fundamentalism, their misogyny, their brutality. Afghanistan was a place I read about, thought about a place where everything that I assumed or believed in was being challenged," says the avowedly left-wing author, who describes himself as a socialist.
"All of my theories, all my sentimental loyalties, certain notions in governance were either sorely tested or overturned by thinking about Afghanistan. For a playwright, that's the kind of stuff you want to look at."
Mr. Kushner looked more closely in 1997 after a good friend, British actress Kika Markham, asked him to write an hourlong monologue for her. He read books on Afghanistan, including a 1965 guidebook about Kabul.
"I don't usually like one-person shows very much I keep waiting for the other people to arrive," the playwright says with a laugh, "but I thought it would be interesting to see if I could write one. The monologue sort of came out of my encounter with that rather magnificent guidebook.
"I didn't have any intention of writing a full-length play," he adds. "That only came after the monologue was finished and I heard it performed in front of an audience a few times."
The longer version came about with encouragement from Jim Nicola, a good friend. Mr. Kushner shows everything he writes to Mr. Nicola, artistic director of off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. Mr. Nicola was excited by the initial monologue and has supported the work during its long birthing process.
Now, four years after Mr. Kushner started working on it, "Homebody/Kabul" is in preview performances at the workshop, preparing for a Dec. 19 opening.
The story concerns a middle-aged English woman, the "Homebody" of the title, who travels to Afghanistan in 1998 and mysteriously disappears. Her husband and daughter, an angry young woman, go to Afghanistan to find her.
The first act basically is the original monologue by the woman, played now by Linda Emond, as she talks to the audience, reads from a guidebook and recounts in exhaustive detail the history of that troubled land.
"This woman is not only deliberately withholding information about herself, she is also erasing herself," the playwright explains. "But I then came to believe that she was planning something that she was planning to make up her mind about going to Afghanistan, which is where the rest of the play comes from."
The work just grew and grew and grew but then Mr. Kushner is an expansive playwright. "Angels in America," his Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about AIDs in the age of President Reagan, was performed in two parts and ran more than seven hours. At its first reading a year ago, "Homebody/Kabul" came in at nearly five hours.
"At that point, I felt it was pretty spectacular and powerful," Mr. Nicola says. "You could see the shape of the play and exactly what he was trying to say. It felt to me that it wasn't that far away from being complete."
At the workshop, audiences will see a much shorter, yet still lengthy piece: a three-hour play done in three acts.
"It's a wonderful piece of writing," says its director, Declan Donnellan, who also directed the British production of "Angels in America."
"I very much like plays that have epic themes, and this is a play very much about loss and violence. Tony has an astringent, tough, yet warm humanity.
"The wonderful thing about Tony is that you go on a journey with him through a world that he sees. Yet you are never being preached to. He never makes you feel stupid."
"Homebody/Kabul" has been a special challenge for the tiny but resourceful New York Theatre Workshop, a small space in the East Village where such notable successes as "Rent" and "Dirty Blonde" were born.
"One of the keys to the way the workshop functions is that you don't do work just for the sake of doing it," says Lynn Moffat, the theater's managing director. "You wait until the artist is ready to do it."
You also have to be ready to spend money on it. The expenses for "Homebody/Kabul"? A couple of workshop readings. Trips to London for Mr. Kushner to work with Mr. Donnellan, who was requested specifically by Mr. Kushner, to hear how the work would sound with English actors. Two dialect coaches. Six weeks of rehearsals for the American cast instead of the usual four.
"Homebody/Kabul" will cost $550,000 out of the workshop's annual $4 million budget. The ticket price is a stiff $60. Yet even with that price, the workshop expects to lose about $200,000 on the run, which is set through Jan. 30 but could go longer.
The play already has generated controversy, even for people who have not seen it. A $60,000 federal grant for a separate production, to run next April at Berkeley Rep in California, has been held up pending review by the National Endowment for the Arts. NEA officials have declined to discuss the reasons for the holdup, and Mr. Kushner says he will not comment until he is informed of the reasons.
A third production will open next spring at Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I. Mr. Donnellan also plans a London production at the Old Vic.
Mr. Kushner has plenty to keep him busy in the new year. Mike Nichols will begin filming a six-hour version of "Angels in America" for HBO with an all-star cast reportedly headed by Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, Meryl Streep as the Mormon mother of a homosexual man and Emma Thompson as the epic drama's ubiquitous angel.
Mr. Kushner, who originally trained as a director, will make his New York directorial debut in late February. That's when "Helen," a comedy about Helen of Troy written by Ellen McLaughlin, who was the original angel in "Angels in America," begins performances at the Public Theater.
He also is writing the book and lyrics for "Caroline or Change," a new musical set in Louisiana in 1963 that deals with race. Jeanine Tesori wrote the music, and George C. Wolfe will direct for a production next season at the Public.
Yet "Homebody/Kabul" will occupy Mr. Kushner's time for a while.
"If you are doing a revival of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' or 'Long Day's Journey Into Night,' you know that the play works," Miss Moffat says. "What you don't know is if your production will work. When you do a brand-new play, you don't know if the play works.
"And it's doubly hard with 'Homebody/Kabul,'" she says. "You have to make sure that the context for how this play is viewed the first time out is not tainted by news and political events, events that are changing on a daily basis."

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