NEW YORK - To honor the 80th birthday of celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard, The Road to Mecca, a play he wrote in the mid-'80s, opened Tuesday night for the first time on Broadway.
We have many reasons to celebrate Fugard - foremost, his creation of exceptional theater in his unswerving march against the official racism of South African apartheid - but The Road to Mecca is not among them. It's a ho-hum play with a dull first act, as tedious as cleaning up the piles on your desk, and with a second act that fails to deliver even the satisfaction of at least a clean desktop.
Not that the play has to be tidy. But this story based on a real person is simply uninteresting through most of its unspooling, even though it attempts to plumb fascinating material: privacy vs. community standdards, the right to be different, the tyranny of blind religious belief, the meaning of an artist's life when creativity dissipates with age.
Fugard set The Road to Mecca in a small town in South Africa's desert-like Karoo region. There, an elderly woman named Miss Helen (the superb Rosemary Harris) has been making outsider art - at least outside the norm for her village. Her cement-and-glass statues of owls and animals adorn her home, and fill her yard outside. To her, they are lovely representations with free spirits; to the rest of the upright town, they're the work of a madwoman.
Her young friend (Carla Gugino, annoying in the first act with a hammering delivery of Fugard's chatter, and less so in the second half) travels hours to visit at the old lady's beckoning. Too long after the two begin talking, we learn of a crisis: The town's preacher (the always on-target Jim Dale) is pushing hard to get the woman into a church-sponsored home for the aged.
But is his campaign from the heart - the woman is beginning appear unable to look after herself - or from the collective mind of the community members, who may want to put her away to serve their own prejudices?
This all begins to become juicy by the last part of the Roundabout Theatre Company production under Gordon Edelstein's direction, but by then the juice has been rung out of the audience. The play is banal in its talkiness, which does figure into the ending - complete with a cheaply planted last-minute surprise.
The sadness in all of this is that Fugard's tiresome play is based on the real-life Helen Martins, whose home and statues have come to be a national monument in South Africa - and whose story is far more compelling than the snapshot Fugard delivers.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
At the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42d St., New York.