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Play takes guidebook to heart

The book that inspired Tony Kushner's 'Homebody/Kabul' has an EBay-supplied stand-in at the Taper.

October 26, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

That you can't judge a book by its cover is a proverb that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner knows is true. While researching Afghanistan in New York University's library in 1997, he came upon Nancy Hatch Wolfe's "A Historical Guide to Kabul." The paperback, published in 1965 by Afghan Publishing House, was falling apart and held together by tape.

"I saw these grainy black-and-white photos of a very civilized city, and I knew enough about the city that what this guidebook was presenting no longer existed," Kushner says. "I was moved by that. I also saw that it was written by a Westerner and thought that was intriguing."

The biggest surprise, he says, was the writing. "It was eloquent, slightly baroque, with real wit. Not at all what you would expect in this slightly schleppy guidebook."

The somewhat archaic tome proved the jumping-off point for Kushner's Obie Award-winning play, "Homebody/Kabul," at the Mark Taper Forum through Nov. 9. Originally written as a one-act monologue and performed in London, Kushner expanded the work to 3 1/2 hours. The narrative details both a personal odyssey and a cultural collision of the industrialized West and Afghanistan.

Linda Emond plays the Homebody, who delivers a 53-minute soliloquy, an astonishing tour de force for actor and writer. But whether she is reciting the play's -- and the book's -- opening line, "Our story begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3000 B.C.," or clutching the guidebook passionately to her chest while rattling off words like "regnum" (reign) or "synchitic expegesis" (a coming together), Emond does it with a hardcover prop.

"The prop people found this simple, nondescript book, and Tony liked the anonymity of it," she says. "We needed two copies, which we found on EBay, because the book is also used in the rest of the play by the actress [Maggie Gyllenhaal] playing my daughter. We didn't want one to get beat up, and I was worried about mine getting lost. The book goes on and off stage with me. I haven't let it out of my hands."

Though "A Historical Guide to Kabul" makes an appearance onstage only in name, its stand-in has been fitted with actual passages from the guidebook, including a pullout map copied from Wolfe's book. "For me it has a history," the actress notes, "and since that is an enormous amount of what the play is about, the book is filled with associations. It has bits of wear inside from my fingers. The book has become an appendage. It has a lot of good juju."

So too does Kushner: When writing the play, he found the author (by e-mail), alive and well, living in Peshawar, Pakistan. "Nancy was very sweet," Kushner says. "Since I was using some of her material, I said I wanted to pay her. She said, 'Absolutely not.' I sent her a check. Then I turned it into a full-length play. I convinced her to take a share of the royalties."

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