by Sergei Burbank · January 28, 2015
Mel Johnson Jr, Rufus Collins | Carol Rosegg
The Road to Damascus takes place over the course of a week in the not-so-distant future, after the elevation of the first black African Pope (Mel Johnson Jr.) in Rome and election of the first third-party president in Washington. Domestic bombings have resumed in the United States, and the smoke is still clearing from the latest, outside Rockefeller Center, when the pope’s emissary, Roberto Guzman (Joris Stuyck) holds a secret meeting with his old school friend Dexter Hobhouse (Rufus Collins), a cynical, borderline burned out State Department official. The American government is keen to pin the latest campaign of terror on the Syrian government, still in the throes of civil war. Guzman’s message: if the American president continues to insist on retaliation against Syria, the Pope will travel to Damascus to serve as a human shield. The secret ultimatum spurs a mad scramble: the State Department, keen to avoid shedding papal blood, dispatches Hobhouse to Rome to stop him, dangling an ambassadorship as bait; the NSA, which forms a nebulous shadow government, is keen to have its war at all costs; and a core of conservatives within the Vatican is deeply skeptical of its newly activist Pontiff, and possibly preparing to form a fifth column against him. Loyalties are tested by hidden agendas: is Syria the true culprit behind the bombings? Does Hobhouse value his career above all else? How much support does the Pope have in his own church?
The tremendous prescience -- and good timing -- of this production is a marvel. First conceived in 2007, the list of items this play has predicted is exhaustive (and exhausting). A politically engaged, non-European pope immersed in high-stakes international diplomacy is no figment now: in the past few weeks the current Argentinian Pope has been credited with key engagement in ending fifty years of hostility between the American and Cuban governments. The rise of multiple Islamic militant groups out of Syria’s civil war was pessimistic in 2007, but an accurate prediction now. The play also presaged a nefarious, powerful National Security Agency six years before Edward Snowden began disclosing various state secrets to the public.
Despite the resonances with our current sociopolitical landscape, the cast must do heavy lifting to capture the given circumstances of the play. Exposition battles with political intrigue for stage time; an idealistic pope spelling out intricate conspiracy theories about Middle Eastern governments with skeptical underlings makes for head-spinning dialogue -- but of course such information dumps are absolutely necessary if we’re to understand the payoff of the plot’s twists and turns.
In fact, the close resemblance between our current situation and the given circumstances of the play, while exhilarating, does present a problem: Dulack’s script must take time to outline how it’s different (the pope is like Pope Francis, but different; the Army of God is not to be confused with the Druze Freedom Party, and neither are to be mistaken with ISIS; Hillary Clinton was president, and the audience can chuckle at the name drop, but it really has nothing to do with the politics of the play; and on and on). The problem with such intricate world building is that is detracts from the cast’s ability to truly engage with the emotional reality of their situation, and the overall production lacks a sense of urgency. Instead of a countdown to war, we seem to be watching a series of liturgical discourses.
Moreover, there are some plot holes that don’t bear much weight under prolonged scrutiny: while the NSA has become a government-within-the-government, it cannot seem to monitor or locate its enemies -- even when they continue using their government-issued cell phones. (Assuming the NSA is even more powerful in this alternate future, it bears noting that Snowden worked pretty hard to cover his tracks back in the good old days of 2013.)
These are quibbles that come to mind when regarding the play’s accuracy and relevance to our current world. All that said, I doubt The Road to Damascus is supposed to be taken as a water-tight political thriller: rather, it is an extrapolation, an expansion of current trends to their most extreme outcomes. What if the Pope not only staged massive outdoor services in the Philippines, but arrived to visit their slums unannounced? Can the United States drop thousands of pounds munitions on the other side of the planet without anticipating someday those conflagrations will expand beyond its scope?
The script really sings when it shifts away from the big picture and depicts how internal politics can warp otherwise well-meaning people. Collins’ Hobhouse is a subtle portrayal of libido, idealism, and cynicism at war within a single man; he is reluctant to abide his better angels, and we are nevertheless charmed by it. Joseph Adams gives a notably delightful performance as Hobhouse’s put-upon State Department superior, and Robert Verlaque is truly engaging as Cardinal Medeiros -- potentially Pope Augustine’s bette noire within the Curia, but perhaps something more complicated.
Brittany Vasta’s scenic design makes full use of 59E59 Theater’s high-ceilinged Theater A; the magisterial set seamlessly serves as a luxury hotel, government bunker, and Vatican antechamber. The vertical orientation does odd things to the video projections, however: the sideways-mounted screen cuts off the image of the broadcasts-within-the-play. In establishing atmospheric elements, Quentin Chiappetta’s sound design is evocative and effective.