Credit the Roundabout Theatre Company for selecting one of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s more unknown works, 1984’s The Road to Mecca. Credit Roundabout, actually, for selecting one at all: The last Fugard production on Broadway was in 2003, a revival of his ”Master Harold”…and the Boys. After all, the prolific Fugard has penned nearly three dozen dramas.
Yet this Road to Mecca, at the American Airlines Theatre through March 4, is long, winding, and, in the end, more than a little unsatisfying. The 1974-set three-hander takes place entirely in remote New Bethesda, South Africa house (and mostly around the kitchen table) of sexagenarian widow/avant-garde artist/village outcast Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris). She’s a fascinating character — just what are those crazy statues outside in her garden anyway? But why has this 30-something woman Elsa Barlow (the magnetic Carla Gugino) driven 800 miles straight from Capetown to see Miss Helen? You’ll have to wait about an hour to find out. And how many times must she mention Miss Helen’s ”last letter” before she reads the darn thing? Once she finally does, it’s not, regrettably, the smoking gun we suspect. Mecca isn’t Fugard’s most elegantly crafted work (oh, the heavy-handed candle imagery!), and, regrettably, director Gordon Edelstein — who was responsible for 2010’s sensational Glass Menagerie, one of the best Tennessee Williams revivals I’ve ever seen — makes us feel every bump along the way.
Fortunately, things liven up a bit with the mid-show arrival of local preacher Marius Byleveld, played with a glint and a spot-on accent by Jim Dale (perhaps best known now as the voice of the Harry Potter audiobooks). But we can only hear him pontificate on potatoes for so long. The production’s biggest problem is also its linchpin: As captivating as she is, Harris is simply too sane to play ”mad as a hatter” Miss Alice. She looks like my grandma in Coldwater Creek clothes, not a woman who ”banished darkness” from her life by grinding up beer bottles in her coffee mill to make her walls sparkly and creating questionably pagan outdoor artwork. And if only we had the chance to see her artwork! Fugard provides plenty of descriptions, but Michael Yeargan has designed a jaw-dropping set — a tchotchke-filled explosion of paint and glass and glitter, of weathered wood, comfy quilts, and soft tapestries. It’s a veritable dream house. Imagine if he’d had the chance to build a bunch of cement Buddhas. C
(Tickets: RoundaboutTheatre.org or 212-719-1300)