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A CurtainUp Review
Via Dolorosa

My whole life I've been told, 'Western civilization? An old bitch in the teeth.' And so, people say, 'Go to Israel. Because in Israel they're fighting for something they believe in.'
--Sir David Hare quoted in the Lincoln Center Theater Member News on what prompted him to finally visit this epicenter of world religion. The people he met there moved him enormously and led to the writing of Via Dolorosa.

If there were a theatrical award for chutzpah, this year's winner would surely be a man one hardly associates with Jewish expressions -- Sir David Hare. Until he and Israel turned fifty, Hare left its people as source material for the pens of writers like his friend Philip Roth. But Roth persuaded him that "These people are so crazy there's room enough for all of us."' And so, two years ago, this gentile Englishman set off for his first visit to the country where he had many professional connections (his visit coincided with a production of Amy's View). Upon his return he wrote up his experiences and enlisted the excellent Stephen Daldry to turn it into a solo play starring himself. With the help of Mr. Daldry and his creative team his monologue does have the aura of a real play.

The clever Ian MacNeil has created a raked wooden stage effectively lit by Rick Fisher. At stage right and left are some tables and chairs and at stage rear a short iron-railed wooden bridge leads to the backstage wall of the theater from which Hare enters and exits. At one point the simplicity of the set is sabotaged by a rather kitschy and Broadway-pandering glimpse of the old city in accompaniment to Hare's arrival at the wailing wall.

Hare, who admittedly hasn't acted since his school days, has great personal charm and a fine comic flair. He may be an alien in terms of being on the stage end of the theater but this befits his role as a gentile in the contentious world of Jews and Palestinians. He introduces us to a procession of people encountered on his journey, shifting from his voice to theirs. This switchabout is more the exertion of an animated raconteur or college professor than that of a gifted mimic and character portraitist.

What we have here is less actor-playwright than an astute well-spoken investigative reporter whose curiosity led him to explore not only the ever deepening differences between the Arabs and the Israelis but between orthodox and secular Jews. Thus he talks to Jewish settlers on the West Bank who remain bitter toward Rabin and rationalize guilt about his assassination by an ultra orthodox Jew by saying he could have prevented it. He talks to a left winger who traces the "un-Jewish" emphasis on land over life to the 6-Day war. He also talks to Palestinians disgusted with Arafat's government. Being a man of the theater, he also meets with colleagues, including two directors of a Romeo and Juliet with Jewish Montagues and Arab Capulets who really hated each other.

Whatever genre you feel best fits Via Dolorosa -- play, travelogue masquerading as play, philosophical monologue -- it's richly seasoned with memorable phrases from a gifted wordsmith and good listener. He compares going from Israel to the Gaza Strip to "driving from California to Bangladesh." He gracefully sums up his agenda with these questions: "Are we where we live or are we what we think? What matters? Stones or ideas?" (His reaction to returning to his home in England shows that even this man of ideas understands the importance of stones).

If the Booth had set up a stand selling the 96-page book which also includes Hare's lecture, "When Shall We Live", no doubt quite a few copies would be bought by exiting enthusiasts. The book's sales rating at Amazon is not in the 3 or even 4 figures, but a very respectable 38,529. I suspect this show's limited run will also sell a respectable if not spectacular number of tickets, especially as some highly anticipated other London hits with unquestionable credentials as full-fledged plays open up in the Via Dolorosa neighborhood. That includes Amy's View which Mr. Hare turned over to professional actors who include Dame Judy Dench.

Maybe Sir Hare can persuade the versatile Dame Judy to do her own ninety minute meditation on her working visit to New York. It would be the very thing to make the staged travel lecture a regular sub-genre under the solo show umbrella.

Written and performed by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Set Design: Ian MacNeil
Lighting Design: Rick Fisher
Sounddesign: Paul Arditti
Booth Theatre,222 West 45th St. (Broadway/8th Av) (239 - 6200).
Running Time 90 minutes
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/24/99 performance

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©Copyright, Elyse Sommer, 1999
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