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New York 'Afghan' Play Gets Attention - 2002-01-25

One of the most talked about shows in New York this season is not taking place on Broadway but in a small experimental theater where Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner's latest drama is sold out. The big draw is the play's topic; Afghanistan.

Tony Kusher's substantial reputation as one of the most thoughtful and innovative people writing in the English language today is enough to keep a theater full. But the rush for tickets to his latest play also had a lot to do with the title "Homebody/Kabul."

Despite the length just short of four hours there are no available seats for the limited engagement at the New York Theater Workshop.

The play, set in 1998, opens with "Homebody," an hour-long monologue by actress Linda Emond. Ms. Emond has won rave reviews for her portrayal of a frustrated British housewife, referred to simply as the homebody, with a yen for exotic travel and a fascination with all things Afghan.

The play's second act finds the Homebody's husband and daughter Priscilla in Kabul, where they have come to collect her body. They are told that she has been beaten to death. But then, her body disappears. Priscilla refuses to accept the disappearance and begins a frantic search for her mother's corpse. An elderly Afghani who says he is a poet who once lived in London comes to her aid.

Priscilla: "Are you Taleban?"
Poet: "No. Tajik. The Taleban prefer Tajiks far away in Tajikistan. The Taleban are mostly Pashtun and Afghan Tajik's are mostly out of work."
Priscilla:"You know the city?"
Poet: "Since 1993 I am Kabuli. Before that Earl's Court, duckie. And before that Kabul where I was born."

Nothing and no one are what they seem in Mr. Kushner's Kabul a place of intrigue and conflict. Is the Homebody really dead? Or has she converted to Islam and married a local doctor as Priscilla is told? Is the poet really a poet? Or are the poems he begs Priscilla to take back to London really pages filled with anti-Taleban information?

Amazingly, Mr. Kushner started writing the play several years ago after the United States bombed suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1998. The playwright says he has not made any changes since the September 11th attack on the United States and the subsequent U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Charles Isherwood covers New York theater for the entertainment industry publication "Variety."

He says the play's relevance to September 11 is more than a coincidence. "It does seem on the surface to be a coincidence, but I think it is probably because Kushner recognized early on that this was a very dangerous place where our policies were fomenting some really unpleasant attitudes," he says. "I think he saw that the terrorist networks that were taking root there could really become a major problem in the future."

Mr. Isherwood stresses that the western characters introduced in the second act are as unpleasant, and unhappy, as any of the Afghan characters. The "Variety critic calls Tony Kushner the most political U.S. playwright since Arthur Miller. Mr. Kushner's great strength, he says, is humanizing his characters as he shows the effect of political issues on ordinary people. "I think what is important about this show is its theme is essentially that these two cultures, western culture and Islamic culture in Afghanistan, are interconnected in all sorts of ways that we were not aware of until the tragic events of September 11," he says. "I think it states that in a very eloquent though maybe long-winded way. It is something that I think is important that we do not forget six months down the line. The fact that misery in a place like Afghanistan can have repercussions all over the world."

Critics are of a mixed mind on the issue of whether or not the play will appeal to larger, more mainstream audiences. But all agree it is an eloquent and ambitious work by a playwright who is always provocative.