Both of the June books in the Playbill Readers’ Circle are histories in their own ways, but both tell us a great deal about what is happening today and offer a glimpse of what may happen in the years to come.
Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001: A Relevant and Irreverent Record (Oxford University Press): The best part of Steven Suskin's reference books Opening Night on Broadway and More Opening Nights on Broadway wasn't the quotes from critics about classic Broadway shows, but Suskin's own tart commentary that accompanied each show. Suskin, who reviews recordings for Playbill On-Line, added perspective, backstage stories and insider information to tell the rest of the story around each show. You got the rare sense that you were sitting down with someone who not only knew what he was talking about, but knew how to talk about it in a witty, theatrical style.
His new Broadway Yearbook series, whose second annual edition is now in stores, wisely pushes the other critics way upstage, and lets Suskin come down center to take the spotlight.
As it turned out, 2000-2001 was a great year for backstage stories. This was the season of The Producers, Seussical, The Full Monty, Jane Eyre, A Class Act and the Follies revival, and all of them had as much drama backstage as on. Drawing on his experience as a theatrical business manager, as a critic and even (briefly) as an actor, he's able to tell each show's story authoritatively from several directions at once.
He has a talent for zeroing in on one aspect of a show that causes a whole production to triumph — or fall apart. In Follies, it's the out-of-period spelling of "theater" on a curtain that lends the whole show an aura of falsity. In the Hair revival, it's the fact that the hippies do synchronized dance steps in an era that epitomized doing one's own thing. Each show is accompanied by a box listing not only of the cast and crew, but an accounting of the show's finances and award nominations. A series of useful appendices include a survey of holdover shows, a critical analysis of each category in the Tony Awards, a list of shows that announced for Broadway but never made it in, and a necrology of those lost during the year. It's a useful, fun book that made me miss trains on two different days because I was so absorbed in its narrative that I lost track of the time.
Who Will Buy: Theatre fans who want a seasonal survey that goes beyond the dry facts and puts each show into perspective.
Homebody/Kabul (TCG): This month’s new playscript was written by Tony Kushner with horribly good timing.
The play, whose subject is the violence and culture clash between Afghanistan and the West, premiered Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop in fall 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and just as America was planning Operation Enduring Freedom to cleanse Afghanistan of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Kushner, who tackled big historical themes in his Pulitzer-winning Angels in America isn’t clairvoyant, but certainly seemed so at the time.
As the title indicates, Homebody/Kabul is constructed in two parts. Most of Act I consists of a 21-page monologue delivered by a British woman who reads aloud from a guidebook about the sad, chaotic history of the Afghan capital, Kabul, as insights about her own sad, chaotic life keep bubbling to the surface. She resolves to go. The rest of the play chronicles her daughter’s journey to Taliban-ruled Kabul to find her mom, who has disappeared in that city. Local authorities say the mother has been killed — torn apart by a mob, actually — but the daughter can't believe it.
Journeying into the heart of this Middle Eastern darkness, she experiences dramatic confrontations with alien personalities, culture and religion, as she comes to understand the price of being from "a people of terrible luxuries," and winds up saving a woman she never expected to meet.
In the opening monologue, the mother recalls seeing an Afghan shopkeeper in London whose fingers have been cut off. She immediately projects herself inside his head, suddenly intuiting the contradictions that make up life in his benighted homeland: "Look at my country, look at my Kabul, my city, what is left of my city? The streets are as bare as the mountains now, the buildings are as ragged mountains and as bare and empty of life, there is no life here only fear, we do not live in the buildings now, we live in terror… Only terror can save us from ruin, only neverending war, save us from terror and neverending war, save my wife, they are stoning my wife, they are chaising her with sticks, save my wife save my daughter from punishment by God, save us from God, from war, from exile, from oil exploration, from no oil exploration, from the West, from the children with rifles, carrying stones, only children with rifles, carrying stones, can save us now..."
And this was written before 9/11 and before the American-led war in Afghanistan. Kushner remarks on the timing of the play in an interesting Afterword, included in the book.
Lauded director Frank Galati is planning a major new production of Homebody/Kabul, opening July 2003 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.
Who Will Buy: Thoughtful people trying to understand what we’re grappling with in Afghanistan. Fans of Kushner’s Angels in America who’ve been wondering what he’s been up to. Chicagoans preparing for Frank Galati’s upcoming production. Fans of drama who are wondering what has interested Galati so much.