The problem with Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, currently presented by Roundabout, is that there is no dramatic action. It takes until the last five minutes of the first act to get to the inciting incident – to lay the stakes for the play. Until that point, there is no reason to care about the two characters we’ve met, who spend their time not talking but trading speeches. And even once we learn what hangs in the balance, we’re too mind-numbingly bored to be hooked by the ostensibly intriguing reveal.
Set in New Bethesda, South Africa in 1974, The Road to Mecca brings us into the home of Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), just as she receives a surprise visit from a friend, Elsa (Carla Gugino). Most of the first act has the two friends catching up, which is interesting only to them. Finally, somewhere near the sixty-minute mark, we learn that the town pastor, Marius Byleveld (Jim Dale), and others are trying to convince Helen to enter an old folks assisted living home. Elsa balks at this, encouraging Helen to stand up to Marius, who arrives at the very last moment of the act. The second act sees everyone making their case and, at long last, comes to a conclusion.
And I can’t even tell you what that conclusion was. I think this is supposed to be about finding inner peace and coming to grips with your changing abilities, but really, when the characters just started yammering on and on, I tuned out. It almost reminded me of a Mamet play, the way the playwright abused words and just kept stuffing them into the script, clearly not trusting the actors, director (in this case, Gordon Edelstein) or designers (scenic by Michael Yeargan and lighting by Peter Kaczarowski) to convey anything. When the curtain finally rang down, I couldn’t move quickly enough, making my way down the stairs and onto the road to the subway.