''Our story begins at the very dawn of history" are the first words spoken in Tony Kushner's ''Homebody/Kabul," setting the tone for an epic play that will take us from a cozy British house to the muck and mire of Afghanistan.
Written in the years preceding the Sept. 11 attacks, ''Homebody" seemed to predict the apocalypse on our doorstep and, in Kushner's inimitable fashion, to try to come to terms with the gaping divide between East and West.
His voice, alas, is suppressed in the Boston Theatre Works production, which tries to turn Kushner into Harold Pinter, with near-disastrous results. As a writer, Kushner meets the world like a cross between Karl and Groucho Marx. His humor is complex and pointed, but always accessible, even obvious.
Here, the delivery is arch and the humor hard to find. The problems begin with the almost hourlong opening monologue, in which a British housewife regales us with her love of language and other cultures, mixed in with anecdotes about her loveless marriage to a boring husband. As a purely theatrical exercise, Nancy Carroll's performance under Jason Southerland's direction as the Homebody is remarkable. She is elegantly coiffed, smartly cynical, and disarmingly self-assured.
But the Homebody should be none of those things. This is the story of a woman who leaves the security of her middle-class life for the unpredictability, the savage beauty of Afghanistan armed only with an outdated tourist guide. It is the act of a person who is smart enough to know that she is being ground down by the soullessness of her life, but also optimistic and naive enough to ''love, love, love the world" and go out to explore it.
Carroll's joyless Homebody makes it seem as if she's going off to commit suicide. When her equally depressive husband and daughter come after her, accompanied by a translator-facilitator supplied by the British government, it becomes all too clear why so many in the East hate so many in the West.
But that wasn't Kushner's intention. Granted, Milton (the husband), Priscilla (the daughter) and Quango (the government aide) aren't nearly as likable as most of the characters in Kushner's other masterworks, ''Angels in America" and ''Caroline, or Change," but here they're barely human.
Helen McElwain plays Priscilla with such fussiness that you wonder if she just forgot to pack the Metamucil before heading off for Afghanistan. Bill Molnar as the father and Nathaniel McIntyre as the aide don't find enough in their characters to make us care about what happens to them.
Zeynep Bakkal's set is equally inadequate. A tiny, poorly appointed kitchen has what looks like a giant garbage bag looming in front of it, keeping the Homebody too distanced from the audience in the first act. A bombed-out backdrop is better once they get to Afghanistan, but the projected slides of the country are merely distracting. The droning music is even worse.
With such poor support, Kushner's themes are barely able to bubble to the surface. Key among them is the idea that touching what one does not understand corrupts rather than heals. The English family members are barely capable of physically touching one another. America's ''touching" of countries it makes no attempt to understand has dire repercussions.
Fortunately, the men playing Afghans get some of the spirit of the play across, particularly John Sarrouf as a poet who guides Priscilla around the country in search of her mother. Sarrouf nobly captures his character's sad determination to soldier on in the face of darkness. When he talks about Esperanto or another Afghan swoons over Frank Sinatra's music, we sense that Kushner is yearning for some way people of different backgrounds can learn to communicate.
Like the Homebody, or at least Anne Scurria's Homebody in Trinity Repertory Company's infinitely better production, Sarrouf's character embodies Kushner's spirit of moving forward. (So does Mahala, an Afghan woman who is trying to come to the West, but Michelle Dowd's overbearing performance here is off-putting.)
Kushner has made some changes and cuts since ''Homebody" played at Trinity, and I'm not sure they're for the better. At a little under three hours, it's about a half-hour shorter than it was, but this is a play that may need time to unfurl. It's hard to judge, though, from this production.
It's a shame that neither the Huntington Theatre Company nor the American Repertory Theatre, with their far greater resources, chose to do the play or at least to bring the Trinity production northward. ''Homebody/Kabul" deserves to be seen under optimal circumstances, and that's a far cry from what's onstage here.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.