Review Roundup: THE ROAD TO MECCA - All the Reviews!

By: Jan. 17, 2012
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Roundabout Theatre Company tonight opened Athol Fugard's THE ROAD TO MECCA, featuring Tony Award® winner RoseMary Harris as "Miss Helen," Carla Gugino as "Elsa Barlow" and Tony Award® winner Jim Dale as "Marius Byleveld," and directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Set in the region of South Africa known as the Karoo, The Road to Mecca tells the story of an elderly woman who has spent the years since her husband's death transforming her home into an intricate and dazzling work of art. The reclusive Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris) has become depressed and appears increasingly unable to care for herself. Pastor Marius Byleveld, who embodies the village's conservative values, is determined to get Miss Helen into an old-age home. Her friend Elsa (Carla Gugino), a young teacher from Cape Town who is deeply suspicious of the patriarchal traditions Byleveld represents, is just as determined that Miss Helen remain free.

What did the critics think? Find out now!

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: In this quiet, slow and ultimately powerful production, directed by Gordon Edelstein and featuring strong performances from Jim Dale and Carla Gugino, Ms. Harris plays Miss Helen, an elderly South African woman who has hitherto seemed gracious, fretful and rather prosaic. Now she has given undiluted voice to the kind of fear that lurks in everyone — one of those personal fears that are so profound that people shirk from naming them. She is magnificent and shrunken, harrowed and harrowing.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: While “The Road to Mecca” meanders — and its intimacy is lost in the vast American Airlines Theatre — the show’s low-key approach ultimately works in its favor. Even better, we get to watch luminous stage icon Rosemary Harris duet with Tinseltown glamour-puss Carla Gugino (“Sin City”)...While far from perfect — Fugard occasionally lapses into sappy melodrama; set designer Michael Yeargan’s South African shack looks more like a Santa Fe B&B — the show is a slow-burning pleasure.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Fugard is a dazzling wordsmith, but he's given to writing at wearying length. So it's heavy going for much of the first act...[Miss Helen finds her voice] in a speech that Harris delivers with an incandescent flame in her eye. It's a long time coming, and for too much of the play thesp is constrained by Miss Helen's fragility. But when the moment comes, Harris lights her candles and sets the stage ablaze.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: "It grows on you," Harris' character says at the beginning of the play. She's talking about the small South African village where the action is set, but she might as well be describing the piece itself, which really only gets going in Act 2...The face-off between Elsa and the pastor has been a long time in coming — Act 1 drags on way too long simply to establish the jeopardy Miss Helen is in. The play then has a hard time deciding how to end after Miss Helen has taken the stage for her grand soliloquy, a manifesto for any artist to defy convention.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Fugard writes impeccably honed dialogue; it’s just that there’s so much of it, and his reams of exposition are far from seamless. Without a director capable of accessing the lightness and delicacy in his dense thickets of words, his plays can veer into windy speechifying. There’s also a tendency here for the playwright to belabor his metaphors, making the 2½-hour drama repetitious, often dull and stylistically dated. This is at heart an intimate play that seems needlessly stretched, swimming in a too-large theater.

Matt Windman, amNY: Although the production features a fine cast including Rosemary Harris, Jim Dale and Carla Gugino, it's about as exciting overall as watching paint dry. All three actors would benefit from bringing more passion to their performances. Although their characters are credibly portrayed, they approach them so gently that it makes this lightweight play feel even more insubstantial.

Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg: Gordon Edelstein has staged “Mecca,” which has slow-going moments, with keen sensitivity to its rhythms...Dale, too long absent from the stage, is a wonderful Marius, his eyebrows registering every emotional bump on this long evening. He also gets the accent better than his two colleagues, though Gugino is affecting as a young woman challenged by her own disappointments. Harris floats about Michael Yeargan’s cluttered desert-hued set, a winsome apparition. Like one of Miss Helen’s own creations, though, the lightness of being is crafted of much sterner stuff.

Michael Musto, The Village Voice: At 84, [Harris] is at the top of her game in the revival of Athol Fugard's 1984 play The Road To Mecca, about an eccentric widow who lives among her concrete statues in a South African village where she's been ostracized and misunderstood. Harris is riveting, even when sitting still and absorbing the other two characters' thoughts. (And there are a lot of them.)

Rex Reed, NY Observer: For a good example of just how rare Rosemary Harris's patrician yet persuasive ability can be in holding a restless audience spellbound in an otherwise painful and pedestrian play, all you have to do is get through the Roundabout revival of The Road to Mecca...The play is too talky for its own good, and not all of the talk resonates until that final scene, when so many revelations pour out of all three characters that audience assimilation is frustrating. For the most part, the acting still soars.

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News: Traveling “The Road to Mecca” can be a trying trip. The 1984 play by South African writer Athol Fugard is wordy and circuitous and waves metaphors around like emergency flares. On the plus side, beautiful stretches and a generous humanity eventually emerge in the three-hander, now making its Broadway premiere in a Roundabout Theatre Company revival.

Linda Winer, Newsday: Yet there is no denying that "The Road to Mecca," even with the priceless Rosemary Harris atop a fine acting trio, turns out to be a slow curve instead of a kickoff to Signature Theatre's upcoming season of Athol Fugard's important and wonderful work.

Robert Feldberg, Bergen Record: Harris is a luminous and appealing Helen, and Dale gives a wisely subdued, nuanced portrayal of Marius. Gugino is a bit overstated at times as Elsa, but she also gives the play a welcome jolt of energy. Ultimately, though, this is a play in which the acting can't surmount a story that's awkwardly told, and, under Gordon Edelstein's tame direction, doesn't build any theatrical urgency.

Adam Feldman, TimeOut NY: Audiences must pass through a similar dry stretch at the start of The Road to Mecca, directed with a reverent air by Gordon Edelstein in the Roundabout’s Broadway space, which seems somewhat too large for the purpose. Load up on coffee before you embark on the dozy-cozy first act, a virtual sleeping draught of dim lighting, tea service and puttering exposition.

Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly: 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.

Scott Brown, NY Magazine: The problems begin on the page. For nearly all of Act 1, we hear almost exclusively from Elsa (Gugino), a progressive schoolteacher who’s driven hundreds of miles nonstop from Cape Town into the bush to check on her godmotherly old friend, an introverted Afrikaaner called Miss Helen (Harris). Helen’s a sweet old crank with a long-dead husband, a pushy drop-in pastor named Marius (Dale), and a sculpture garden full of her handmade folk-art oddities, all pointed east.

Erik Haagensen, Backstage: Fugard's delicate three-person work has a great deal of talk and very little action. The drama turns on small moments and subtle subtext and requires intimacy. Despite sterling performances from Carla Gugino, Jim Dale, and the luminous Rosemary Harris, it's a bit of a slog to "Mecca" as the show tries to punch its way across the footlights in the Roundabout Theatre Company's too-large American Airlines Theatre.

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