The Mark Taper Forum and the Los Angeles Theater Center are only a few blocks away from each other. To get from one of these downtown theaters to the other takes only minutes, but this weekend, the worlds presented on their stages could not be farther apart.
At the Taper, Tony Kushner-s HOMEBODY/KABUL takes you to the streets of Afghanistan-s capital during the Taliban regime, while at the LATC, a new version of Hart and Kaufman-s YOU CAN-T TAKE IT WITH YOU takes you to a place perhaps an even more foreign to western audiences: the backyard of a patriotic, middle class, Muslim-American family.
HOMEBODY/KABUL aims to transport the audience to a world that cannot be visited. Thankfully, the Taper respects the play-s -extreme sightseeing- element. Their production does not cut corners or try to present Kabul in an abstract way-the stage literally opens up into a bombed-out urban landscape. This realistic setting is key to making the scenes in Kabul come alive. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a British girl searching for her mother and when she takes off her burkha and lights a cigarette in the middle of the street, you almost want to run up on stage and cover her back up.
Unfortunately, -traveling vicariously through the play- is the only purpose of these scenes in Kabul, which take up over two-thirds of the work-s long running time. The characters in the Kabul sections are unfocused and their actions are vague and frustrating. The writing is imprecise and seems to have come from a different author than the one who wrote the play-s highly praised first scene.
That scene consists solely of a monologue by a British woman (called the Homebody) who reads dusty old books about a city by the Kush River and dreams of traveling to Afghanistan. The monologue-s immensely evocative words are expertly delivered by Linda Emond, who created the role of the Homebody in New York. This one scene lasts almost an hour-yet it flies by, making it perhaps the much-lauded Kushner-s finest writing for the stage yet.
The last line of HOMEBODY/KABUL-s first act is -Everything can be lost- which is similar in theme to the title of YOU CAN-T TAKE IT WITH YOU, a comedy which won the Pulitzer in 1937. As written, the play involves two families in New York, whereas this Cornerstone version features two Islamic families in L.A. The production is subtitled: -An American Muslim Remix- and the text has been gleefully updated (Kobe Bryant, the Koran, traffic on the 110 freeway and orange alerts are but some of the tweaks), but the play-s central conflict between old values and youth remains intact.
This -remixed- version of YOU CAN-T TAKE IT WITH YOU does offer insight into Muslim-American life-but it remains very much a standard depression-era assimilation tale. It, like HOMEBODY KABUL, is ultimately not about religion-but about how families must try and make the best of difficult situations.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.