Thursday, January 29, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"Da," "The Road to Damascus"

Written by Hugh Leonard; directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through March 8, 2015
Irish Rep, 103 East 15th Street, New York, NY

The Road to Damascus
Written by Tom Dulack; directed by Michael Parva
Performances through March 1, 2015
New York Theatre Workshop, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

O'Reilly and O'Brien in Da (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Hugh Leonard's intimate memory piece, Da, is an affecting comic drama unashamed to wear its heart on its sleeve. In this lovely elegy to his own father, Leonard paints an achingly personal portrait of a son remembering his 'da' with complicated and conflicted emotions: Charlie Tynan, while sifting through his dad's belongings following the old man's funeral, is visited by both his father's ghost and his own memories of life with his parents while growing up in that same house. 

Throughout, Da is funny and joyous, sad and painful, at times ponderous and slow-going, but always real and humane: in short, it honestly conveys one man's relationships with his parents—and especially with his hard-headed but not hard-hearted father—in a way that allows every audience member to see the universal truths that Leonard shows so unpretentiously.

The Irish Rep's lively production, under Charlotte Moore's precise direction, is led by two forceful performances: Ciaran O'Reilly as the exasperated Charlie and Paul O'Brien as a jovial Da, capture the humanity that makes Leonard's 1978 Tony Award-winning play memorable.

Polonsky and Collins in The Road to Damascus (photo: Carol Rosegg)
In the not too distant future, Islamic terrorist groups are still overrunning the Middle East, especially Syria. And, after midtown Manhattan is shaken by a deadly bombing that's been traced back to Syria, the new American president—the first third-party winner in decades—weighs his few options, which include a devastatingly lethal strike on the capital city of Damascus. However, the brand new (and first) African pope has made it clear that he will go to Damascus as a human shield if American bombs go off in retaliation for the New York terrorist attack. 

So goes The Road to Damascus, a new play by Tom Dulack, which shows a future U.S. and world not far removed from our own, in which our current global crises are given greater urgency, and where terrorists and statesmen are strange, if sometimes unwilling, bedfellows. Our nominal hero is State Department agent Dexter Hobhouse, who's on friendly terms with the Pope's closest advisor, Roberto Guzman, who alerts him to His Holiness's decision about Syria, while Pope Augustine is friendly with a popular international journalist of Chechen Muslim extraction, Nadia Kirilenko, who's also (no surprise here) Dexter's lover. When Hobhouse disappears after meeting the Pope in Rome, both State and the NSA try and figure out whether he has jumped to the other side.

Dulack writes scenes of palpable tension and excitement, tautly building the drama to its breaking point. Don't expect any insights about how politics, religion and terrorism intersect, but rather enjoy a perfectly paced thriller that's compelling and all too pertinent, thanks in large part to Michael Parva's confident direction, Brittany Vasta's clever sets and Graham Kindred's magnificent lighting. The sterling company of actors—led by Rufus Collins' properly frumpy Dexter, Larisa Polonsky's sexy and ruthless Nadia and Liza Vann's foul-mouthed NSA agent Bree Benson—is the icing on a very entertaining, if unsettling, cake.

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