Seen at the Theatre:


is Tony Kushner's long-awaited, much-discussed play about that most benighted state of Afghanistan. Actually, it's two plays. The first part, Homebody, is a monologue of mind-bending difficultly, here performed by Linda Emond, as a British housewife with a voluminous reading habit and the snarled syntax to show for it. Finding an out-of-date guidebook to Kabul, she becomes obsessed with that far-off place and its troubled, tangled history. The rest of the evening, Kabul, takes place some time later (in the late 90s), when she has disappeared in Kabul and her husband and daughter come in search of her. The husband (Dylan Baker) gives in to despair and spends most of the play in his hotel room, drunk or doped up. The daughter, who is angry and mentally unstable, with a history of suicide attempts, wanders through the rubble, following a series of rumors and false leads that only draw her more deeply into the bitter contradictions of life under the Taliban.

There's much to admire about Homebody/Kabul. Kushner's learning and erudition cannot be denied, and you have to credit him for taking on this difficult subject matter. Nevertheless, one's attention wanders throughout. Emond's reading of the Homebody monologue is a technical feat, but Kushner's clotted, word-drunk prose calls far too much attention to itself. The second part has much to say about the history of Afghanistan, but is undermined by the off-putting lead characters, whose whiny self-absorption becomes hard to take after a few minutes. Furthermore, many of Kushner's points have been hijacked by recent headlines; anyone who reads The New York Times' A Nation Challenged section will not be surprised by anything he has to say. Finally, there is simply no reason for the production's four-hour-plus length. The playwright's tale could be amply told in half the time.

Nick Ormerod's rubble-strewn setting makes a strong impact and his costumes certainly seem authentic, especially given the fact that we all know a lot more about the look of a burqa than we did four months ago. Brian MacDevitt's eerily restrained lighting works very well with the scenery and Dan Moses Schreier's music and sound design make a valuable contribution as well. Ultimately, you have to wonder if Homebody/Kabul would have earned many of its reviews if it had not opened in wartime New York.—David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, which re-enacts a disastrous 1993 United States military mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, has been getting a lot of praise for its immersion of the viewer in battle. But I found the film to be a numbing, and finally infuriating, experience. Technically, it's a prodigious accomplishment. Production designer Arthur Max's recreation of the fighting zone on location in Morocco is utterly persuasive, and director of photography Slawomir Idziak, exploiting to the full Scott's penchant for blue, diffused light and bravura camerawork, is clearly a frontrunner (along with Roger Deakins, for The Man Who Wasn't There) for the Best Cinematography Oscar. The soundtrack, which seamlessly blends the Hans Zimmer score with sound effects work by Per Hallberg and Karen M. Baker, is equally impressive.

It's the script, adapted from Mark Bowden's best-selling book, and Scott's blinkered vision that let the audience down. Any context for the operation that left 18 Americans and as many as 1,000 Somalis dead is dispensed with in a few opening titles. What we get instead is a quick introduction to a couple of dozen stock soldier characters—played by such actors as Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Ron Eldard, Ewan Bremner, William Fichtner, and Jeremy Piven, many of whom wear disfiguring buzz cuts--followed by two hours of unrelenting, and often incoherent, fighting. Who are all of these African men, women, and children so viciously attacking our American boys? The filmmakers couldn't be bothered to clarify it for us. The black-skinned figures on screen are like movie monsters that just keep coming, no matter how many times you shoot at them. This can't be what Scott intended, but it's the result nonetheless.--John Calhoun

Heard on the Street: A Princess Grace musical? Did you think this day wasn't coming? If you must see it, you'll have to go to Amsterdam. Grace, the Musical opened there in a specially designed theatre, with a score by Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, On the 20th Century, The Life). Apparently, librettist Seth Gaaikema has structured the piece as a kind of triangle, with Grace torn between Prince Rainier and Alfred Hitchcock, and the different ways of life they represent. There's plenty of American talent involved, including director Patricia Birch. Eugene Lee, best known here for Sweeney Todd and Ragtime, is the set designer, with costumes by local designer Rien Bekker and sound by British firm Orbital Sound. (Oddly, no lighting designer is listed). No word from Monaco about what Grace's relatives think of the project, but I suppose we can reports that Urinetown will stay at the Henry Miller Theatre until June, when that building is scheduled for demolition. This is good news for the show, which was originally scheduled to vacate the space in March. It's even better for designer Scott Pask, who will have more time to imagine how he can fit his environmental setting into another space....If you aren't booking a flight to Amsterdam to see Grace, the Musical, you might consider a trip to Seattle, where the Empty Space Theatre is presenting a stage version of Jacqueline Susann's immortal trash classic, Valley of the Dolls. Among its salient features are a male actor playing the role of heroine Anne Welles, and a Jennifer North dream ballet, dedicated to the tragic starlet who turns to nudie films to support her brain-damaged husband. Designers on this, ahem, unique project include Richard Lorig (scenery), Dennis Milam Bensie (costumes and wigs), Timothy Wratten (lighting), and Nathan Anderson (sound)...It's a Susann year, as Paper Doll, a bio-play about the author starring Marlo Thomas, with F. Murray Abraham as her ever-dedicated husband, is said to be circling Broadway. The production was well received in Pittsburgh earlier in the season. The designers were Michael McGarty (scenery), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), Brian Nason (lighting), and Zach Moore (sound).--David Barbour

Heard on the Architectural Beat: Polshek Partnership Architects, in collaboration with theatre consultants Fisher Dachs Associates, Jaffe Holden Acoustics, and architectural lighting designers Cline Bettridge Bernstein, have designed the new Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall, which opened in late 2001. The interesting thing about the project is that the new state-of-the-art, 2,500-seat music hall is nestled in the envelope of a 1938 civic building, demonstrating a creative reuse of urban property. A steel superstructure was placed inside the old building to create the new stage house (with full fly tower, wings and backstage area), while curved concrete walls clad the auditorium interior. The dark color palette in the auditorium helps focus attention to the proscenium stage, as does the design of floating balconies and articulated side wall towers. The project was designed by architects James Polshek and Richard Olcott, in collaboration with Timothy J. Hartung, partner-in-charge for Polshek…Speaking of architects, Cesar Pelli has revealed the models for his new 2,000-seat concert hall and 500-seat music theatre at the Orange County Performing Arts Center that will be built in Costa Mesa, CA....And on the theatre consulting front, Auerbach + Associates designed the theatre systems and seating plan for the new 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent, a permanent tensile structure built for the Aspen Music Festival in Aspen, CO, replacing two former "tents" on the same site. The new one is made of Teflon-coated fiberglass tensile material fabricated and installed by Birdair, fabricators of the infamous Millennium Dome in London and the soaring roof of the Denver International Airport…

Scenery West and Technifex, two L.A.-based scenic companies, were among the many scene shops to be involved in the new Toys R Us flagship store in Times Square. They collaborated on the design and building of scenic elements, signage and special effects for a display promoting Mattel's Hot Wheels toys line. Technifex has also been tapped as technical show producer for Tomb Raider: The Ride, based on the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The ride is scheduled to open in 2002 at Paramount's Kings Island theme park, located just 24 miles north of Cincinnati, OH…Also on the theme park calendar is Warner Bros. Movie World in Madrid, Spain, scheduled to open in the spring of 2002, just a few months away. This $300 million park has five themed areas: Hollywood Boulevard; Cartoon Village; Wild, Wild, West; Gotham City; and Warner Brothers Studios Live. Park-wide lighting will be provided by ETC's ETCNet2 and Unison control panels, installed in conjunction with ETC's Spanish dealer, Stonex. With 3,000 channels of dimming, the system was designed by ETC's David Gray, and will be one of the first European installations for WYSILink, ETC's fault and diagnostic reporting software.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux