- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Director John Vreeke has a genius for taking dense, accreted material and spinning it into something unexpectedly magical and immediate. Last summer, he did it with the Washington Shakespeare Company’s transcendent production of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a novel remembered by everyone for the scorchy parts, although it’s really D.H. Lawrence’s hothouse diatribe on stifling class distinctions in 20th-century England.

At Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre, he took the exposition-laden comedy “Red Herring” and made it into a slap-happy, commie-hunting 1950s farce that was as snappy as a Mickey Spillane potboiler.

Now Mr. Vreeke has done it again, this time for Woolly Mammoth and Theatre J, with a wrenchingly affecting and beautifully acted production of Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul.” As theater mavens already know, Mr. Kushner never met a monologue he didn’t like, as evidenced by the eight-hour masterpiece “Angels in America,” which gave the phrase “Faulkner-esque” a whole new meaning.

His love of language is evident and infectious, and the nearly four-hour “Homebody/Kabul” introduces us to such obscure morsels as “antilegomenoi” (volumes of cast-off or forgotten knowledge) and “periplum” (a word coined by Ezra Pound to describe a tour that takes you round, then back again), among others.

Mr. Kushner also imparts a historian’s delight in world history. Even if you believe your college lecture days are long behind you, you have to admire the playwright’s audacity for starting “Homebody” with a one-person sirocco of a speech that whips you through thousands of years of Afghanistan’s upheavals in little more than an hour.

The play begins in 1998 with the Homebody (a charmingly distracted and gracious Brigid Cleary), an eccentric and bookwormy Englishwoman, sitting in a chair surrounded by a crescent of recently purchased Afghan hats. The story of these hats, bought for a party, leads the Homebody through a richly convoluted monologue that touches on the Taliban, Islam, anti-depressant use, unhappy modern marriages, reading and the wide gulf between the words “maybe” and “do.”

An old travel guide leads her to an impetuous trip to present-day Kabul, an act that sets the play in motion.

Her husband, Milton Ceiling (Rick Foucheaux), a nervous computer scientist, and daughter Priscilla (Maia DeSanti) travel to Kabul to find out what happened to her. Did she die an excruciating death at the hands of the Taliban, as reported, or did something more romantic and strange occur? The answer to the Homebody’s fate is never quite settled, as the various characters in Kabul manipulate and exploit Milton and the prickly and belligerent Priscilla. (Seeing Miss DeSanti fighting with her burqa is alone worth the price of admission.)

The gorgeous torrent of language and the in-love-with-words penchant Mr. Kushner displays aside, the most potent aspect of “Homebody/Kabul” is its characters.

They are a striking assemblage, ranging from a former librarian (Jennifer Mendenhall) nearly driven mad by the Taliban’s restrictions on women; to a fetchingly dissolute British consul named Quango Twistleton (Michael Russotto), named after a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel; to a guide (Doug Brown) who may or may not be smuggling terrorist secrets on documents he says are poems written in Esperanto; and a former Afghan actor (Aubrey Decker) who speaks in snippets of Sinatra songs and other forbidden pop-culture references.

Mr. Vreeke skillfully handles this panorama of human behavior, enabling the actors to create vivid, brief sketches without resorting to stereotype. He saves the big guns for the main characters, though, starting with Mr. Foucheaux as Milton. Every scene in which Mr. Foucheaux appears — including a hung-over showdown with his volatile and fragile daughter and one in which Quango silkily introduces him to heroin — crackles with honesty and a terrible beauty.

No one does mute vulnerability like Mr. Foucheaux, and he is ably matched by Miss DeSanti as the strident Priscilla. Where Mr. Foucheaux is all quiet composure and observation, Miss DeSanti is angry response and physical rejection.

Mr. Russotto also has some disquietingly sensual moments playing the lonely, erudite junkie, as does Mr. Decker as the culture-hungry former actor. Miss Mendenhall’s strident portrayal of the librarian jars at first, before settling down into a searing performance.

***1/2

WHAT: “Homebody/Kabul” by Tony Kushner

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Through April 11.

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company at Theatre J, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

TICKETS: $30 to $39

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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