Plays lit by candlelight are reliably murderous on one’s consciousness—but never more so than in the Broadway revival of Athol Fugard’s intimate three-hander The Road to Mecca. Stranding both Fugard’s story and actors Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale on a giant stage to chatter away for two-and-a-half hours with a marked lack of dramatic conflict is a recipe for nap-taking.
Visiting her dear, much-older friend Miss Helen (Harris) in her isolated home in South Africa, Elsa (Gugino) finds that Helen is far more tentative than the blazingly idiosyncratic woman she first met, who populated her yard with outlandish sculptures instead of going to church. For most of the first act, Elsa and Helen chitchat and reminisce like the girlfriends they are, gossiping about the villagers, dishing Elsa’s romantic life (none to speak of) and generally acting like ladies who lunch, albeit ones who are lunching in a sprawling New Agey home of glittery walls painted in the palette of a sunset (Michael Yeargan apparently missed the part of the script that described the house as giving the illusion of “extravagant fantasy”). Gradually, Elsa learns that Helen is being pressured by the village’s reverend (Dale) to leave her home for a retirement home. And then it’s intermission!
Not much more happens in the second act, as Fugard allows each of the three the opportunity to be snootily righteous and alliances shift with skepticism-inducing abruptness. After spending an hour worshipping at Miss Helen’s feet, Elsa is suddenly so annoyed by the older woman’s dilly-dallying over leaving her house that Elsa claims to have washed her hands of her, an attitude that lasts just long enough to pique one’s attention before Elsa and Helen return to being BFFs.
The scope of The Road to Mecca and its three characters is so resolutely intimate that it feels stranded on the stage of the American Airlines Theatre; watching the show there is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. No wonder the stakes feel painfully low. Harris and Gugino, two powerhouse performers, must mostly abstain from taking centerstage in service to the piece—though not without giving the impression that they’re stamping their feet and pawing the ground, waiting for one of the explosions that come in the second act. And none of the three performers on stage are done any favors by director Gordon Edelstein, who seems to purposefully contradict the text itself.
“There’s a new sound in your voice,” Helen warns Elsa early on after Elsa casually discusses a hitchhiker who soldiered along for 80 miles. “Almost as if you didn’t care.” But we didn’t hear that tone from Gugino. And nor do we ever get the sense that Helen is anything but a sweetly dotty old lady, one who perhaps belongs in an old folks home. Harris doesn’t display the grit of an Afrikaner here, not even the resoluteness of a woman like Isak Dinesen or Martha Gellhorn, both of whom adopted Africa as their own for periods of time. Instead, we get a low-key conversation between old friends that occasionally spirals out of control—but nothing that convinces us that this play deserved a revival.
Through March 4, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.) www.roundabouttheatre.org; $67-$117
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