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The Road to Damascus

The Directors Company presents Tom Dulack's liberal fever dream of an African pope and an American war in Syria.

Mel Johnson Jr. and Rufus Collins star in Tom Dulack's The Road to Damascus, directed by Michael Parva, at 59E59 Theaters.
(© Carol Rosegg)

In his brilliant memoir Defying Hitler, German dissident Sebastian Haffner wrote, "Is it not said that in peacetime the chiefs of staff always prepare their armies as well as possible — for the previous war?" This question would seem to also apply to a generation of American liberals traumatized by the machinations of the Bush administration. That becomes quite clear after a viewing of Tom Dulack's The Road to Damascus, now receiving its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters. For indeed, just as the generals of France (seasoned in the trenches of World War I) were caught completely off guard by the blitzkrieg, Dulack's wonderfully imaginative yet naïve play assumes that the next great American military blunder will go down much like the last one. This is a mistake.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future in a time of international crisis: A terrorist attack on Rockefeller Center (which some believe to have actually targeted St. Patrick's Cathedral) has left 17 people dead and hundreds wounded. The U.S. government, certain the Syrian government is the culprit, is prepared to respond with force. Some, like Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Medeiros (the appropriately stern Robert Verlaque), suspect Israel is behind the bombing. Others blame Qatar and the UAE. "But the Emirates are our friends," protests Dexter Hobhouse (Rufus Collins), America's most oblivious diplomat and the protagonist of our tale.

U.S. Secretary of State Ted Bowles (Joseph Adams looking appropriately haggard) sends Hobhouse on a secret mission to the Vatican. Pope Augustine (the charismatic and compelling Mel Johnson Jr.), the first African pope, plans to fly to Damascus and act as a human shield against the American bombing campaign. Hobhouse is to stop or delay him at all costs. But what will happen when his Vatican contact, Bishop Roberto Guzman (a sincere and convincing Joris Stuyck), shares some secret intelligence pointing to Emirati perfidy? And what role will Hobhouse's girlfriend, journalist Nadia Kirilenko (a pitch-perfect Larisa Polonsky), play in his decision? After all, she works for PanArabya, a media powerhouse financed entirely by the government of Dubai. Dulack's play is rife with intrigue and backroom politicking. It's as if Glenn Greenwald decided to write a Tom Clancy thriller for the stage.

Like Clancy, Dulack has a keen sense of fanciful conspiracy, albeit from a liberal perspective. The play even comes complete with a cartoonishly evil war hawk villainess. NSA operative Bree Benson (Liza Vann) is a menace in a pantsuit and Republican lady hair. As performed by Vann, she strikes a more terrifying figure than any Alabama school board president. Her foulmouthed verbal barbs land with an awful sting. Amazingly, Vann makes a convincing case for her character's position, even if her look and sound is straight out of central casting. "Somebody can grab him and take him hostage," she sincerely frets over the AWOL Hobhouse. "How would that make us look if some trumped-up f*cking liberation front acting in the name of who knows what insane pack of religious fanatics ends up decapitating him on prime television for the whole f*cking world to see?" After all of the ISIS carnage, it's hard to argue with her point.

Director Michael Parva deftly presents Dulack's onslaught of politics and foreign affairs, even if he sometimes has to rely on forced blocking to make these talky scenes active. "I find I can't sit these days, so I'll just roam," the pope tells Hobhouse during their first meeting. This feels like a clever ruse to give the pontiff a few dramatic crosses. (There was a reason those policy wonks in The West Wing were always walking and talking.) Still, if you're interested in the subject matter, the play will keep you on the edge of your seat. Parva endows the production with high stakes, higher tension, and an artful deployment of Mozart's Requiem that would make even Francis Ford Coppola blush.

Adding to the cinematic tone, video designer Joshua Paul Johnson skillfully produces Nadia's broadcasts, which appear on a flatscreen above the stage. Sound designer Quentin Chiapetta bombards us with sound bites of the global media desperately trying to illuminate the senseless violence happening in the darkness of Graham Kindred's cruel lighting design. (We're left to imagine the horror for ourselves.) Brittany Vasta's versatile set of conservatively contemporary white chairs and wooden tables oozes power and privilege. It's all great fun to witness, but you can't escape the feeling that you're being led astray, that the author has an ax to grind rather than a truth to explore.

"Going into Damascus would be worse than Bush and Cheney chasing weapons of mass destruction they knew didn't exist," Nadia smacks us over the head, in case anyone didn't already see the obvious parallel in this story of an American government rushing to war on shaky evidence. This formulaic view of history is deceptively facile and more than a little cynical. It assumes that Americans are incapable of learning the lessons of history. Yet the very existence of plays like The Road to Damascus (and the proliferation of alternative media companies like Russia Today, First Look, and Al-Jazeera) leads one to believe that Americans are far more skeptical of their government than they were in 2003.

As we steel ourselves against the potential return of the mania that led us into Iraq, one can't help but suspect that we're letting our eye off the ball — that the next American War will look nothing like the last; and like Haffner's chiefs of staff, we will be woefully unprepared.