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Wordy, passionate, funny, acid; an idealist, a cynic, the playwright of his generation, incisive about the politics of his past, seemingly prescient about the events in today’s headlines—I’m talking about Tony Kushner here. And about George Bernard Shaw.
What a rush, what an endless, butt-aching, brain-wearying blast to wrestle within a 24-hour span with both On the Rocks, Shaw’s rambling late-career takedown of British imperial politics, and Homebody/Kabul, Kushner’s three-and-a-half-hour meditation on the sweep and circle of history and the sprawling map of human misunderstanding. What hair-raising, synapse-frying, dissertation-launching excitement to listen to the one through the echoes of the other, to hear two of theater’s titans argue back and forth across a century and to realize, exhausted and invigorated by the sheer torrent of verbiage, that they’ve considered all the short-sighted, self-interested things we’ve done to screw up the world, asked what the hell is wrong with us, and come to pretty similar conclusions. If only our politicians were as wise as our playwrights.
Actually, some of them are, Shaw points out (rather pointedly, too) in On the Rocks: Often as not, it’s we the people who muck it up. Shaw’s 1933 polemic is a big op-ed cartoon of a play that opens with a country at war, an economy in recession, and an increasingly restless unemployed population—and an initially feckless chief executive who’s gambling, by way of response, that “a bit of sentiment about the family always goes down well.” (Sir Arthur Chavender isn’t corrupt, exactly; he just takes on faith that the middle road he’s been trudging is the only way to go, and it’s not until after a Marx-reading retreat in the country that he really makes an effort to get anything done.) Before he’s finished, the playwright chucks in observations on the exporting of jobs and politicians who go out of their way to make wars. There’s a zinger every minute, a tough-minded truth just as often, and great chunks of the play could’ve been written yesterday. And wouldn’t that have been fun? Shaw would’ve been great on Crossfire.
Even for the famously position-paperish playwright, it must be said, On the Rocks is more an assortment of arguments than a collection of characters. In the Washington Stage Guild production, Bill Largess’ Chavender may not be quite the charismatic figure you’d expect in a prime minister who’s holding together a coalition government, but the actor handles the language with his customary aplomb. And the play’s keen political satire constitutes a fat pitch across the plate for director John MacDonald and his players, who make the central act a positive riot. Chavender, having returned from that retreat with a bounce in his step and a raft of ideas about how to rejigger things in a way that’ll actually make a difference, now is able to juggle priorities and promises like a genuine statesman: More constables making higher wages bring Nigel Reed’s dangerously smooth police commissioner on board; nationalized banks and subsidized small-business loans earn the support of Steven Carpenter’s bluff board-of-trade president; income-tax breaks and fleet improvements win over Jason Stiles’ ludicrously beplumed navy chief. Even the landed gentry (in the person of Jeff Baker’s surpassingly suave Duke of Domesday) is prepared to back the PM.
Before long, though, the status quo (in the person of Laura Giannarelli’s stentorian Margaret Thatcher clone) rears its shellacked blond head, and the working class, clutching its old grudges, rejects Chavender’s sensible socialism because…well, because everybody gets something, because it’s not all-out class war. Confronted with the discovery that the electorate is determined to derail the reforms he’s worked out for its benefit, Chavender toys with the notion that the only way to lead is to dictate—and that, Shaw rumbles discontentedly, might not be such a bad thing, except that it tends to end in brown-shirtery (for precisely the same reason, need we note, that democracy doesn’t work so well: We the people are too easily led). Tempers flare, confrontations escalate, and for a moment it looks as if ’30s Britain might go the way of so many of her European sisters—and the play ends not with answers, but with the sound of a street throng’s revolutionary song and a wondering suggestion: “Suppose England really did arise…”
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MacDonald keeps his cast small, with most actors doubling roles; members of the overclass reappear as proletarians—which is apt enough, when you listen to the way Shaw apportions blame for the state of things. The move lets Stage Guild regulars demonstrate some range, too, and mostly to good effect. When he’s not broguing it madly as that middle-class Scotsman, Carpenter gets to play a tradesman who turns out to be an aristocrat with prole pretensions. (Just listen to the upper-crusty fun he has with words like “money” and “property.”) Giannarelli gets to show a softer side, and a less stolid acting style, as Chavender’s warm, levelheaded wife; Tara Giordano plays both their daughter (an irritating beast) and a firebrand alderwoman (also a bit of a beast, but much more engaging). Stiles plays a thickheaded mayor and Chavender’s dimwitted son in addition to that idiot admiral.
And though he’s a little underpowered as an outraged Indian financier, Vincent Clark makes a quiet showpiece of his sad-sack labor leader, who delivers one of the play’s money lines once it’s clear things are going nowhere, as usual: “Adult suffrage…delivered us into the hands of our oppressors, bound hand and foot by our own folly and ignorance.” That’s Shaw’s bitter diagnosis of what ails the body politic: We small-minded voters get the leaders we deserve, and they achieve only as much as we let them. As for a prescription, he leaves that more or less up to us.
For an hour, Brigid Cleary’s London housewife commands the stage at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center with nothing but a wealth of dotty charm and a carry-bag full of those woven Afghan hats that aren’t, as she points out, quite big enough to be fezzes nor quite curved enough to be skullcaps. Well, those plus the delirious monologue Tony Kushner has given her—a looping, free-associative account of a London shopping expedition that takes in 3,000 years of history, meditations on both the functions of antidepressants and the nature of magic, and a bit of Sinatra, too, and describes those same hats as “abbreviated fezlike pillboxy attenuated yarmulkite millinarisms.” Indeed: “I speak…elliptically, discursively,” the Homebody of Kushner’s Homebody/ Kabul confesses, well after you’ve noticed it for yourself, and she keeps apologizing for it—and keeps lapsing right back into comma splices nonetheless, “supersaturating my narrative with maddeningly infuriating or more probably irritating synchitic exegeses—synchitic expegeses? Jesus.” For this, by the end of her time onstage, you love her—a little wistfully, perhaps, but unreservedly.
And then she disappears. Decamps to Kabul, it turns out, having been seduced by the romance of its description in the 33-year-old travel guide she’s been reading and by the horrors she’s been hearing of in the newspapers, which are full of America’s cruise-missile attacks on Afghanistan. It’s 1998, and Trousergate is in full roar, and our embassies have just been blown up, and we’re getting ready to accuse President Clinton of responding to the second as a way of distracting from the first. The Arab world is in a rage at the United States, and there is a slowly, dimly gathering awareness that the chickens we’ve been keeping in the region are about to come home to roost.
Kushner’s genius has always been in the way he conflates vast concerns with the lives and tics and foibles of his characters, and here his Homebody’s obsession—with “a pickpenny library of remaindered antilegomenoi…Antilegomenoi are volumes of castoff or forgotten knowledge, in case you were wondering”—points up the argument he’ll make later, when her family has gone searching for her only to discover how alien and angry a city can seem. It’s not that the world’s people don’t know each other, the sweep of Homebody/Kabul suggests; it’s that we forget each other. It’s that we don’t try hard enough to hold on to what we’ve learned; we don’t look past our parochial concerns to the bigger picture. “We romp about, grieving, wondering, but with rare exception we mostly remain suspended in the Rhetorical Colloidal Forever that agglutinates between ‘might’ and ‘do,’” muses the Homebody, echoing Shaw in language even that old pontificator would have found extreme.
Cleary, whose performance is a marvel of dead-on craft and off-kilter appeal, is the evening’s unquestioned triumph, but the rest of the cast of this Theater J–Woolly Mammoth co-production does pretty formidable work, too—Rick Foucheux’s emotionally crippled and -crippling husband and Jennifer Mendenhall’s confinement-maddened Afghan intellectual are two other standouts. And if the long night sometimes slows, director John Vreeke never allows it to drag. Not in several extended exchanges in French or Pashtun or other tongues, some of them untranslated except by an actor’s physical art; not in late sequences involving opium-addled revelations and a dimly lit vigil at what’s rumored to be the burial place of Cain. (“Murder’s grave,” marvels Cleary’s Homebody early on, discovering that Adam’s angrier son is said to have founded Kabul; “Would you eat a potato plucked from that soil?”)
Homebody/Kabul is a huge play, with vast expanses of explanatory monologue and expositional sequences that have more to do with cultural background (on, say, the Taliban and various ethnic tensions among Afghans and their neighbors) than with the specific hurts and mournings of its characters. Yet Kushner weaves their stories in skillfully enough: If the Homebody’s damaged husband and daughter (a heartbreaking Maia DeSanti) never find her in the perilous souks and back alleys of Kabul—never learn whether the stories of her gruesome death are true or just invention—they do discover a bit about what drove her to disappear, plus a little about themselves, too.
But of course unresolved questions are as central to Kushner’s picture of our inhuman condition as they are to Shaw’s; Homebody/Kabul is one anguished cry—How did we get to this awful place?—with an endless, spiraling, self-contradictory answer, and it’s not for nothing that a frustrated character observes, “I get the appeal of fascism now. Uncertainty kills.” (There goes that Shaw echo again.)
If he can’t spell out an answer, though, Kushner at least offers some hope about where we might start looking for one. Among his characters is a Kabuli poet (a gentle, ingratiating Doug Brown) who writes, forlornly enough, in Esperanto—yes, Esperanto, the all-but-defunct “universal language of peace.” The poet writes of a watcher in a garden: “Her voice is ravishing, and it is fatal to us. We may seek her, or spend our lives in flight from her. But always she is waiting in the garden, speaking in a tongue which we are born speaking, and then forget.”
Later, Foucheux’s character and Mendenhall’s begin to understand each other, tentatively, over a conversation that ranges from the Dewey Decimal System to the dialects of digital networking—“Ah, these which is seem not alike, you shall make a single thing, to, to communicate,” the Afghan woman exclaims, delightedly, and this man who has nothing in common with her replies, almost without grasping the import of what he’s saying, that yes, this is his business: “Joining opposites, routing, crossing a threshold.”
Communication, then, and common tongues, and memory, and relentless progress—“the world only spins forward,” Kushner told us in Angels in America, and this radiant little moment of understanding echoes that triumphant claim. We reach back into our histories; we reach out toward each other; we reach for the understanding that somewhere, beyond our little lives, there’s a humanity we share even with the people we fear, even with the people who think they hate us. Obvious, maybe even sentimental, and expressed here in ideas so multifaceted and in language so lapidary its beauty is positively dazzling. That mysterious figure in the garden? She’s our potential. CP