Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS (The Directors Company at 59E59 Theaters)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on January 27, 2015

in Theater-New York


A deadly explosion goes off in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. The U.S. blames a terrorist group they say is funded by the post-Assad Syrian government, and prepares to retaliate against Syria with conventional and probably nuclear weapons. In response, the first black African-born Pope threatens to go to Mel Johnson Jr and Rufus Collins in THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Photo by Carol RoseggDamascus and act as a human shield to prevent bloodshed. The U.S. sends their only diplomat with connections inside the Vatican, a tired slacker by the name of Dexter Hobhouse, to stall the Pope any way he can until the invasion begins.

A straightforward political thriller ripped from tomorrow’s headlines, Tom Dulack’s new play The Road to Damascus gets a masterful staging at the hands of director Michael Parva; the entire production is a showcase of theatrical craft. The script, whose 156 pages Mr. Parva manages to squeeze into 100 intermission-free minutes, is intelligent and mostly solid. The performances, particularly in respect to character work, are outstanding; especially memorable are a sympathetic Mel Johnson Jr. as the idealistic Pope Augustine, and the restrained Robert Verlaque as his pragmatic underling Cardinal Medeiros. A charmingly rumpled Rufus Collins plays Dexter, and Joris Stuyck is delightful as Dexter’s drinking buddy, Bishop Roberto Guzman.

Mel Johnson Jr and Joris Stuyck in THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Brittany Vasta’s set is as elegant as it is economic, its versatility aided by Joshua Paul Johnson’s videos playing on a vertical screen above the action, which assist in establishing different locations. Although this story feels better suited for a movie, or even a mini-series, if this type of genre entertainment is your bag, The Road to Damascus will probably not disappoint; my companion was riveted throughout.

Larisa Polonsky, Rufus Collins, and Joris Stuyck in THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Photo by Carol Rosegg

I was not so lucky. There are some hiccups in the script when it comes to capturing the reality of world politics—the most memorable of which is when hawkish NSA official Bree Benson (a scary Liza Vann) tells her State Department colleague Ted Bowles (a wonderfully exhausted Joseph Adams) that if the Pope were to fly to Syria the Israelis would be willing to shoot down his airplane as a favor to the U.S.

Liza Vann and Joseph Adams in THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Photo by Carol Rosegg

But most of these missteps are well-disguised by the playwright’s sleight of hand. In any event, so many pieces of information are thrown at us that it’s difficult enough to assimilate them, let alone separate the plausible from the extravagant. But these, as well as the fact that the very last scene of the play needn’t be there, are minor and forgivable flaws.

Mel Johnson Jr and Larisa Polonsky in THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Photo by Carol Rosegg

What is more bothersome is the imbalance between exposition and personal drama, with way too much of the former in relation to the latter. The only time I find myself truly emotionally invested is when Chechen-born Muslim TV journalist Nadia Kirilenko (a committed Larisa Polonsky) tries to dissuade the Pope from going to Larisa Polonsky and Rufus Collins in THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS. Photo by Carol RoseggDamascus on the grounds that the move would be both suicidal and futile. Her position, that faith and religion cause only evil, comes from personal experience, not abstract notions, and so what she is saying hits home. Same is true for the Pope’s counter argument. And while director and actors make all the scenes work, this one, unfortunately, stands out.

But what I find most disappointing is the absence of some surprise, some revelation, some unexpected connection between what happens in the play and in the outside world. Mr. Dulack makes a collage of current events—stretching them a bit and rearranging them to suit his story—but the result does not transcend the sum of its parts. We already know everything he’s telling us, it’s in the news, and he makes nothing new from it, relegating his play to well-crafted genre entertainment.

photos by Carol Rosegg

The Road to Damascus
The Directors Company
59E59 Theaters
scheduled to end on March 1, 2015
for tickets, call 212.279.4200 or visit

{ 1 comment }

Cydelle Berlin January 28, 2015 at 12:46 pm

I, like the companion to this reviewer, was absolutely riveted throughout. The play is a scary, yet unfortunate, realistic view of what might likely happen in the “very near future”. I found it a must see – and I see a LOT of theater, both Broadway and Off-Broadway. Even though it’s cold out, go ASAP before this beautifully crafted production is sold out. Bravos to Tom Dulack, Michael Parva, the entire cast and especially to The Directors Company for an unforgettable, thought provoking evening. Well done!

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