Millennium Reproaches 

Tony Kushner, back on the Left Coast

Thursday, Sep 18 2003
Photo by Jim Newberry

“I love the world! I love love love love the world!” exults an Englishwoman named Homebody in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, shortly into her dazzling, play-opening 45-minute soliloquy. Though any character’s expression is only a diffused sliver of the author’s, Homebody’s gentle wit, her breadth of knowledge and passion for research, her relentless curiosity and almost pathological self-awareness combine into a love for the world that seems not unlike Kushner’s. For her own eccentric reasons, Homebody, a British woman with a yearning for connectedness to any world beyond herself, studies an outdated guidebook for Kabul, Afghanistan — a city into which, by Act 2, she will have disappeared, her baffled family on her heels, searching for her.

Right around September 11, 2001, the author of Angels in America was preparing to open Homebody/Kabul (currently in previews at the Taper) at the New York Theater Workshop. That Kushner had conceived of a play about Afghanistan before al Qaeda struck the twin towers brought a fresh wave of astonished praise for Kushner’s prescience — a compliment he denies right before predicting that George W. Bush will lose next November’s election, and that within two years we’ll be in a mega-recession — the inevitable fallout from the nation’s decimation of its manufacturing base. “What recovery?” he says quietly during a walk down Chicago’s North Avenue. “Based on what? Home refinancing?”

Homebody’s opening confession to the audience is reason enough to see this play. Written with strategically arch formality and a poet’s precision of language, it careens with the levity of a pingpong ball between a discourse on Persian history and a meditation on Homebody’s brittle relationship with her bewildered family, and provides further evidence supporting Kushner’s long-held assertion that, in the theater at least, he is a dramatist, not a polemicist. From her stuffed armchair, Homebody keeps swerving across lanes of thought, occasionally hitting the center divider before bouncing into a ditch. After a pause, she crawls out, temperamentally on hands and knees, before resuming:

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“My husband cannot bear my . . . the sound of me and has threatened to leave on this account and so I rarely speak to him anymore. We both take powerful antidepressants. His pills have one name and mine another. I frequently take his pills instead of mine so I can know what he’s feeling. I keep mine in a glass bowl next to the bathroom sink, a nice wide-mouthed bowl, very wide, very open, like an epergne, but so far as I know he never takes my pills but ingests only his own, which are yellow and red, while mine are green and creamy white; and I find his refusal to sample dull. A little dull.” (She pauses and resumes reading.) “. . . By 322 B.C., only a year after Alexander’s death, his vast Macedonian empire had disassembled.”

The charge that Kushner’s theater is more pedagoguish than dramatic stems partly from the inability of his accusers to differentiate between a politically charged play and a screed, or between a character and its author. Kushner’s characters may spout diatribes, but his plays, many coming from an Elizabethan tradition, are about the collision of those arguments into a kind of forum. Kushner’s works are composed of conflicts and discussions merging into a skeptical, ironical and often paradoxical vision; a play with a vision can shed some light, whereas a play with an opinion can be merely annoying. It’s helpful to distinguish the two.

Kushner has been plagued by the charge of didacticism since one of his earliest plays, A Bright Room Called Day (1985). Written as a despondent response to Ronald Reagan’s re-election, the play uses a series of short, Brechtian scenes to chronicle the collapse of will among a troupe of leftist Berlin actors as Hitler ascends to power in Weimar Germany. If the left would ever hang together, it could actually avert catastrophe, the play suggests — a conviction that’s continued to streak across the firmament of Kushner’s thought for almost two decades, like a wish made on a perpetually falling star.

Into the Bright Room mix, Kushner adds a contemporary commentator, an irritant by design, a woman named Zillah haunted by nightmares, who, lamenting Reagan’s willful neglect of the AIDS epidemic, compares the former American president to Hitler. Critics jumped to the conclusion that Zillah and her leaps of logic were simply Kushner bounding around in a dress. The Guardian’s Michael Billington savaged the play with such ferocity, Kushner says (with a combination of haughtiness and defensiveness), that he still doesn’t read reviews. (It must have been friends who broke to him the news about The New York Times describing Angels in America as the most important play of the decade.) Still, despite the almost 20 years that separate them, and despite their differing personalities, Zillah and Homebody are both bright women suffering in domestic confines, while an epic unfolds behind them.

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