Kabul Hell

The trouble with Tony Kushner and his new play Homebody/Kabul is that he chews more than he can bite off. The problem with Afghanistan is, Allah knows, great enough, but Kushner goes at it so obliquely, elliptically, and deviously that all his wordy, windy overelaboration (after much cutting, the play still runs three hours 40 minutes) only further obscures the tiny kernel of plot. Logic, in his hands, becomes logorrhea; illumination is bypassed for obfuscation; character is merely an excuse: Anyone in the play can turn profound or simpleminded, eloquent or inarticulate, to suit Kushner’s hunger for effect.

The work started as a monologue, a rather sesquipedalian, somewhat dithering Englishwoman’s reverie about Kabul based on a 1965 guidebook to that city. Large chunks of that book are read aloud by the woman, identified only as Homebody. She has not been to Afghanistan, but she has bought ten Afghan hats (pacoolis), and distributed them among the guests at a party, which thus (or as Kushner has it, “thusly”) became an uncharacteristic success.

So the monologue, which is Act One, is eighteen pages of history and geography read from the guidebook, interlarded with senescent musings about such things as the differently colored antidepressants she and her husband use, and how she sometimes pops his yellow and red pills instead of her green and creamy-white ones, so as to understand him better. From her party, and her husband’s work in computers spanning space and time, her thoughts drift to “that galaxy so far away, exhaling protean scads of infinitely irreducible fiery data in the form of energy pulses and streams of slicing, shearing, unseeable light – does that nebula know it nebulates? Most likely not. So my husband. It knows nothing, its nature is to stellate and constellate and nebulate and add its heft and vortices and frequencies to the Universal Drift, unselfconsciously effusing, effusing, gaseously effusing,” etc. Whereas she cannot tell her “simple tale without supersaturating my narrative with maddeningly infuriating or more probably irritating synchitic exegeses. Synchitic exegeses. Jesus.” That “Jesus” at least we can understand, even if it is there only to echo “exegeses.”

To start a play of well-nigh four hours with an eighteen-page monologue is already exasperating enough, especially since Homebody becomes in Act Two, rather unconvincingly, the unseen wife of an English computer expert, improbably named Milton Ceiling. With their drone of a daughter, Priscilla, they have traveled to Kabul, where Mrs. Ceiling (i.e., Homebody) has mysteriously disappeared. The official explanation is that she was torn to bits by ten West-hating fanatics, and that her body, or its dismembered parts, cannot be found. This is lengthily expounded by Dr. Qari Shah in medical jargon that passes comprehension – a full page of stuff like “After dislocation of the humerus from the glenohumeral joint, there was separation and consequent calamitous exsanguination from the humeral stump,” etc.

It later appears that Mrs. Ceiling may not be dead, but has converted to Islam so as to replace a first wife, Mahala, of whom Dr. Qari Shah has tired, and who would have Milton and Priscilla smuggle her out of Kabul and into London. Mahala is half crazy, and speaks in a mixture of Socratic epigrams and hogwash, often in fluent French, sometimes in Farsi. Languages and jargons are Kushner’s obsession, what with long segments of dialogue in Dari or Pashto (which Kushner had translated for him) usually spoken without translation. (In the manuscript, translations are provided, but that’s no help to the audience.)

The aim is to bamboozle, astound, and arouse our masochistic wonderment. When they do speak English, the Afghans sound either like Oxonians or, more often, like bunglers in pidgin, with thick accents for heightened incomprehensibility. Frequently several persons speak simultaneously in different tongues, to assure total inscrutability, except for Priscilla, whose profuse fucks and fuckings provide oases of accessibility. Kabul might as well be Babel, from which, appropriately for Kushner, we derive the word babble.

The plot, insofar as it exists, concerns Priscilla’s search for her mother, dead or alive, with a guide who is a philosophical Tajik poet writing his poems in Esperanto (we duly get a sample), sheaves of which he foists on Priscilla to deliver to someone in London – except that these poems may really be encoded messages from a spy posing as poet. Meanwhile, Milton, who never leaves his hotel room, gets drunk with Quango Twistleton (a name partly derived from P. G. Wodehouse), who is some kind of semiofficial go-between for the British and Afghans. From alcohol they progress (oh so slowly) to opium, thence to heroin, allowing their language to get boozily baroque and even less penetrable. But Quango lusts for Priscilla, who reluctantly agrees to trade her bod for a document allowing Mahala to exit Afghanistan and, in return, lead Pris to her missing (or dead) mother, however unlikely such a resolution may be in a shaggy-mom story.

And all this, except by Yusef Bulos, rather dubiously enacted – but whom do we blame: the author, the actors, the director (the Brit Declan Donnellan), whose steady chum (Nick Ormerod) designed the provocative set, gorgeously lighted by Brian MacDevitt? Out of each three-hour half of Angels in America, 40 or 45 minutes are salvageable; out of Kushner’s current gaseous effusing, considerably less. But then, it is not easy to tack two endless acts on a mere preexisting monologue, however overlong.

The movie Summer of ‘42 had a modest success: A beautiful just-widowed war bride sexually initiating a panting, virginal adolescent is a story as old as the hills, or at least as old as Daphnis and Chloë (probably third century A.D.). But the World War II setting, the lovely seaside cinematography, the beauty of Jennifer O’Neill, and the catchy score by Michel Legrand put the film across. The musical now, with glib book by Hunter Foster, no-account score by David Kirshenbaum, and sweaty-under-the-collar staging and choreography by Gabriel Barre, seems dated and wan. Both principals, Kate Jennings Grant and Ryan Driscoll, are perfunctory; better are Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brett Tabisel, though two supporting players, like two swallows, do not a Summer make.

By Tony Kushner; staged by Declan Donnellan.
Summer of ‘42
Directed and choreographed by Gabriel Barre.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Kabul Hell