January 28, 2015

"The Road to Damascus" is Worth the Trip

As regular readers know, I’m always griping about how so few plays today grapple with current events. Well, I certainly can’t say that about The Road To Damascus, the political thriller at the 59E59 Theaters, which has a storyline that could easily stand in for a CNN news digest.

Set in a “not so distant future,” the play revolves around a showdown between the American president who succeeds Hillary Clinton and the ISIS-like extremists who have finally taken over Syria.  

When the U.S. threatens to bomb Damascus following an attack on midtown Manhattan, the newly-elected pope, the first pontiff from an African nation and a witness to the bloodshed in his own homeland, vows to go to Damascus to serve as a human shield for the residents of the Syrian capital.

Over the next 100 minutes, people in both Washington (a gung-ho female staffer attached to the NSA, a couple of frustrated State Department officials) and the Vatican (its wily Secretary of State, a Chechen journalist who knew the pope when he was a bishop in the Congo) try to stop him. 

Their efforts are played out in a series of talky scenes in which the characters lay out their positions. Playwright Tom Dulack tries to spice things up with a little sexual intrigue but his play still calls to mind one of those Sunday talk shows that assembles people with a range of political views and then lets them all go at one another.

Dulack teaches theater at the University of Connecticut but the dramaturgy of The Road to Damascus is a little loosey-goosey. Coincidences abound, all of its characters seem to have shared a past with one another and people cover vast distances in warp-speed time. 

HIs women come off particularly poorly: the NSA woman is one of those standard-issue ball-busters who for some inexplicable reason continue to serve as avatars for accomplished women. Meanwhile, the journalist is portrayed as an opportunist who has slept her way to the top of her profession (click here for some other examples of that tired trope). 

Still, the play's issues are compelling and the acting, under Michael Parva’s taut direction, is convincing. A special shout-out goes to Joshua Paul Johnson, whose video projections transform Brittany Vasta’s simple set into a half-dozen different locations, ranging from the inner sanctums of the Vatican to the streets of Damascus.

Dulack originally wrote his play in 2007 as a way to express his anger over the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War (click here to read a Q&A with him) but he doesn’t settle for easy answers or, despite his title, save-the-day epiphanies.

The ending of The Road to Damascus has more in common with the messiness of Showtime’s “Homeland” than with the neat fixes found on CBS' "Madam Secretary.” But that only makes it all the more engaging. So much so that after the performance I attended, intense debates erupted in the lady’s room. An indication, surely, that other theatergoers besides me are eager for thought-provoking works like this one.

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