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War and Warhorses

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Deep into the third of three long acts in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul (at New York Theatre Workshop), there is a genuinely tense scene. A near-mad Afghan woman is leaving the country in the company of a stuffy British citizen and his daughter. Suddenly border guards seize the refugee and point a gun at her head. If there had been a parallel scene during rehearsals with a well-armed dramaturg or director standing over Kushner with an automatic weapon and demanding cuts of at least an hour, the play would have been a better one.

As it stands Homebody/Kabul is a four-hour sit, studded here and there with pithy observations of the current state of the world. But the vast majority of the evening consists of flat characters speaking impossibly verbose sentences at one another or in monologue form. Kushner's landmark hit Angels in America suffered from similar problems, but it was rescued by a gallery of fascinating personages, alive with conflict and personal history. The people of H/K are stick figures with a few details pasted on them like labels: Drug Addict, Had an Abortion, Feels Depressed.

Kushner is to be praised for at least attempting to write an important political play. That's a rare thing in the American theatre. But we don't care about anyone in the play, and all the talk is just that—endless words with no emotions behind them.

The Atlantic Theatre Company is more successful as it trots out that old warhorse Hobson's Choice, by Harold Brighouse. The old mare has got plenty of life in her. This 1915 comedy of sexual and social politics within a middle-class Northern English family was once a standby of regional theatres here and in Britain but has not been seen much in recent years. That's somewhat hard to understand, as its depiction of the plucky daughter who bests her domineering father is definitely pro-feminist. Also, the laughs are solid, and there are three juicy leading roles for the father, the daughter, and the shy cobbler she unexpectedly marries and, in a gender-reversed version of Pygmalion, turns into a self-confident go-getter.

Those parts are admirably fulfilled by Brian Murray, Martha Plimpton, and David Aaron Baker. The constantly employed Murray uses his considerable arsenal of double-takes, tics, slow burns, and vocal-octave jumps to ornament the Falstaffian Mr. Hobson as he goes to war with his equally obstinate daughter, Maggie, for control of his business. Plimpton shows remarkable assurance and backbone as the in-charge Maggie. Baker does some of his deepest work on the New York stage as Will Mossop, particularly in his transformation from a milksop to an oak.

Violence and Gangs

At the Vineyard Theatre murder and racism are incorporated in Cornelius Eady's bleak Brutal Imagination. In 1994 South Carolina mother Susan Smith deliberately rolled her car into a lake with her two children still inside. To explain their absence she invented a black male carjacker and said he abducted the kids. Based on a series of poems by Eady, this 70-minute play with music depicts the relationship between Smith and the imaginary criminal, here called Mr. Zero.

There are some arresting stage pictures in Diane Paulus' staging, abetted by Kevin Adams' creative lighting and Diedre Murray's score played by an onstage quartet. But we don't really get inside Smith's head or the motive behind her horrendous crime. We are offered the explanation that a boyfriend did not want the children and rejected her. But some insight into her individual psychosis would have been helpful. Mr. Zero is a literary device, so we can't identify with him. This despite strong performances by Sally Murphy and Joe Morton.

Melissa James Gilbson's [sic], at Soho Repertory Theatre, is a charming little bauble of a play. It flies at us in bits and pieces. Scraps of information about its trio of young wannabe artist neighbors are flung out to us, much as the trio hears snippets from the partially seen couple living downstairs. This fragmentary state of affairs is conveyed by Louise Thompson's ingenious split-level set. There are quirky stories of meeting people on the subway, smart-ass titles for party games, awful dates, and other reports of urban living. But ultimately it's a doodle. The same director, Daniel Aukin, has a more powerful script in Alexandra Cunningham's No. 11 (Blue and White), presented by the Play Company at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. This incisive study of a gang of amoral teens is subtle and deep, enacted by a talented group of youngsters. The playwright is developing the material for a possible HBO series.

Tape Up, Cobble Together

Tape is a tight, three-character one-act that is in the unique position of receiving a full Off-Broadway production with relatively unknown actors after the film version featuring big names has been released. Stephen Belber wrote the play for friends Dominic Fumusa and Josh Stamberg, had it workshopped off-Off-Broadway, premiered it at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival, and then a small indie-film version starring Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman was made. I have not seen that movie, but the play (in a production by Naked Angels at the José Quintero Theatre) is neatly directed by actor Geoffrey Nauffts, fully exploiting the potential for explosive confrontations.

We are in a cheap motel room in Lansing, Mich. Former high school chums Vin (Fumusa) and Jon (Stamberg) are reunited. Vin is drifting through life, selling pot and pretending to be a fireman (a ruse that produces ironic laughter from the post-Sept. 11 audience). Josh is in town for the premiere of his movie at a local film festival. During their encounter Vin forces Jon to admit (on the titular tape) to sexually assaulting their mutual former girlfriend Amy in their senior year. Amy (Alison West) later arrives and provides her own spin on the situation. Belber deftly handles the multiple strands of recriminations and hypocrisy that tie these three together.

While Tape is tight and singular in its effect, Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate), running at the Women's Project & Productions Theatre in a co-production with Playwrights Horizons, is all over the place. The play by Sarah Schulman mixes fact and fiction about the title author; hence the parenthetical subtitle. Along with her great friend Tennessee Williams, McCullers chronicled the lonely existence of mainly Southern misfits with compassion and attention to detail. Schulman attempts to shine an equally bright light on the creator of the unforgettable inhabitants of The Member of the Wedding and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

But writing about writers in dramatic form is nearly impossible. The act and art of literature is talked about, but it stubbornly refuses to be made theatrical. Director Marion McClinton, who so ably brought to life the vibrant worlds of August Wilson and Kia Corthron, fails to give focus to this scattered work. Jenny Bacon has the impossible task of playing McCullers as a constantly crying wretch who rarely experiences joy. She is way over the top and lacks the grounded earthiness emblematic of a McCullers character. BSW

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