Review by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- Tony (Angels in America) Kushner's new play HOMEBODY/KABUL is a typical work of his: a sprawling social drama packed with ideas, impassioned language, cries of pain over man's inhumanity to man. Running 3 1/2 hours, the play unfolds slowly and maddeningly at times, but redeems itself time and time again with stunningly dramatic scenes that make the waiting worth it.

The first half of the play offers Linda Emond as The Homebody--a self-absorbed, deeply neurotic, do-gooder Englishwomean--delivering a 52-minute monologue in which she spills out her agonized feelings over the human condition as it exists in Afghanistan, a country she knows only from an out-of-date guidebook and from her glimpses of it on the evening news. Emon delivers the monologue in commanding fashion, but often irritates with her annoying diction and whininess.

Kushner's play originally stopped at this point, but then he wrote a second act set in Kabul, where Milton Ceiling (Reed Birney) and his daughter Priscilla (Maggie Gyllenhaal) have arrived to try and find The Homebody, who suddenly left them and their English home and garden and took off for Afghanistan in search of the beauty and peace promised by the guidebook, knowing at the same time that the Taliban was in control of the country. The Homebody was never heard from again, having presumably been killed by Muslim zealots for daring to go out in public without covering up in a burka.

Milton is overwhelmed by the poverty and bigotry of Kabul and retreats to his hotel room, leaving it up to the teenaged Priscilla to venture out in search of her mother. Kushner strains credulity by putting the burden of the story on the shoulders of such a young, disturbed girl (Priscilla's already been through drugs, abortion, attempted suicide), but he pretty much gets away with it, thanks to the scenes involving the local Afghanies--Khwaja (Firdous Bamji), a poet (In Esperanto, no less) turned guide; Mullah Ali (Aaasif Mandvi), a Taliban spokesman; and Mahata (Rita Wolf), an upper-class woman driven nearly mad by the puritannical viciousness of the current regime.

The plight of Afghanistan lies at the heart of the play: a jewel of a country torn apart by geo-political forces (Russia and the KGB, the USA and the CIA, Islamic fundamentalism, etc.) The spectacle of human beings trying to stand up to such naked power and aggression is not a pretty one. HOMEBODY/KABUL is full of violence, blood and torment, but it is not nihilistic; Kushner also sees hope and humanity in the mess the world has made of Afghanistan, and he dramatizes his point of view in provocative and oft-gripping fashion. His able cast and director (Frank Galati) back him up admirably as well.

At the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue, through Nov. 9. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit TaperAhmanson.com