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A CurtainUp Review
The Road to Damascus

"I had to fight religion since I was a child to get what I wanted. And then when I became a journalist, all I covered were wars and atrocities perpetrated on each other by people of faith, by idealists and fanatics, by God-worshippers, and Jesus lovers, and Jews, and people who thought they should kill your for eating pork, and other people who thought they were divinely ordained to kill you because you ate beef... I hate all religions. I hate people of faith. I hate faith because it thwarts human life."

Road to Damascus
L–R: Mel Johnson Jr. and Rufus Collins (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
A few years from now, America has elected its first third-party president and the Vatican has elected the first black pope, but not much else has changed: the world still teeters under the constant threat of disaster wrought by religious fundamentalists or the powerful nations they have besieged. The NSA has become even more powerful and secretive, while the global press continues to uncomfortably maintain necessary lifelines to businesses and governments alongside journalistic independence.

As Tom Dulack's The Road to Damascus opens, PanArabya News's Nadia Kirilenko (Larisa Polonsky) reports from the immediate aftermath of a bombing in midtown Manhattan. The US intelligence community —embodied by the NSA's Bree Benson (Liza Vann) and the State Department's Ted Bowles (Joseph Adams)—links the attacks to extremists funded by Syria and plans swift retaliation. But when Roberto Guzman (Joris Stuyck), envoy to Pope Augustine (Mel Johnson Jr.), offers an ultimatum that the Pope will oppose an escalation of hostilities in the Middle East by going to Damascus and offering himself as a human shield, it falls upon the American diplomat Dexter Hobhouse (Rufus Collins) to travel to Rome to assuage—or simply distract—Augustine.

Amidst this hectic backdrop (that's only brushing the surface of the web of connections and conflicts at hand here) Dulack's play, the premiere of which is produced by The Director's Company at 59E59 under Michael Parva's direction, offers elements of a ripped-from-the-headlines political thriller, future history, dystopian fiction, and theological inquiry—elements that are all evoked in differnt ways by the efforts of the show's design team: Brittany Vasta (scenic design), Graham Kindred (lights), Lux Haac (costumes), Joshua Paul Johnson (video), and Quentin Chiappetta (original music and sound).

Conceived in 2007 and updated continuously to incorporate ongoing geopolitical developments, The Road to Damascus reflects a full range of contemporary concerns, from the rise of ISIS to the impact of an "activist" pope, but the thriller side of Road falls short: the play isn't surprising enough, the slower pacing of the production doesn't fit the genre, and the successive revisions to update the story feel like they come at the expense of full clarity.

Unexpectedly, within a play that is primarily focused on politics, it's the discussions of religion, faith, and extremism that prove most interesting. If it initially seems curious that Dulack chooses to focus on a standoff between the United States and the Vatican, it makes perfect sense when you see the ways in which the play contrasts, and conflates, the states of government-as-religion in America and religion-as-government in Vatican City. The playwright artfully exploits the dual meanings of "faithful" as implying either religious conviction or simple trust and loyalty.

Similarly, it is Pope Augustine's character that feels the most fully conceived; he is well-inhabited by Johnson, a measured performer with a powerful presence. His one-on-one scenes with Polonsky and Robert Verlaque, who plays the dissenting Secretary of State Cardinal Medeiros, are the show's most effective. Nadia's argument against religion isn't groundbreaking, but her attitude realistically embodies a growing discomfort with religion in an increasingly secular society, and Polonsky's impassioned delivery here feels genuine and forceful.

The Feds, on the other hand, feel like little more than rough caricatures. Vann's Benson can be both amusingly and chillingly heartless, but the character lacks grounding —she's most distinctive for spitting out words at a pace so fast Vann can barely keep up. Bowles, meanwhile, is practically extraneous.

As Hobhouse, played self-assuredly by Collins, moves between the two worlds of the US and the Vatican, little of the story comes as any great surprise. Since the play exists in a world so close to our own (indeed, the bombing that begins the play takes place within a ten minute walk of the theater), this may be frightening from a historical perspective, but it's unfulfilling from a dramatic one.

The Road to Damascus offers an engaging take on the insertion of theology into global diplomacy and is at its best when dealing with the loftier issue of faith. Unfortunately, the play's primary aspiration is to be a mile-a-minute thriller, a path that this Road might want to tread more cautiously.

The Road to Damascus
by Tom Dulack
Directed by Michael Parva
with Joseph Adams (Ted Bowles), Rufus Collins (Dexter Hobhouse), Mel Johnson Jr. (Pope Augustine), Larisa Polonsky (Nadia Kirilenko), Joris Stuyck (Roberto Guzman), Liza Vann (Bree Benson), and Robert Verlaque (Cardinal Medeiros)
Scenic Design: Brittany Vasta
Costume Design: Lux Haac
Lighting Design: Graham Kindred
Original Music/Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta
Video Design: Joshua Paul Johnson
Production Manager: Drew Francis
Production Stage Manager: Rose Riccardi
Stage Manager: Katharine S. Fergerson
Presented by The Directors Company
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
Tickets: $70; or 212-279-4200
From 1/17/2015; opened 1/27/2015; closing 3/1/2015
Performance times: Tuesday–Thursday at 7 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 1/21/2015 performance
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