Via Dolorosa

Apple Tree Theatre

By Adam Langer

Fairly early in his 90-minute travelogue Via Dolorosa David Hare mentions one of his own recent plays, Amy’s View. In its waning moments, he asserts, he encapsulated what he feels to be a great dilemma of civilized yet alienated Western society–that in our increasingly secular and narcissistic culture, we are moved by issues and events only as they affect us personally.

By interpreting the conclusion of one of his own plays in this monologue–which Hare has performed himself up until this Apple Tree Theatre production–the playwright not only shows he’s very consciously conveying messages in his works but calls attention to how he closes this one, an account of his three-week journey to Israel. He ends by intoning its title, but just before that he asks, “Stones or ideas?” That is to say, what’s more important, the tangible or the conceptual? In Israel, is the spirit of a religion and its homeland more important or the country’s physical contours? He might also be referring to the disparity between his own somewhat detached, intellectual existence in England and the passionate, conflictual world he witnesses in Israel.

As Hare observes in Via Dolorosa, people are fully engaged there: they quarrel passionately, and their angers and fears are real. When a director stages Romeo and Juliet with Israelis as Montagues and Palestinians as Capulets, the hostilities between cast members are far more profound than anything Hare might have seen backstage when a British company produced his Secret Rapture.

Hare, who’s never been timid about expressing his political views, has been fairly vocal in his criticism of Zionism. But debating politics from a distance is one thing and confronting them firsthand is another. Hare interviewed Israelis and Palestinians on all sides of the debate, gaining a fuller understanding of the complexity of the issues. He talked to right-wing Israeli settlers, to Israeli and Palestinian politicians, to those who mourn Yitzhak Rabin as a hero, to those who still view him as “the great betrayer.” He toured Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Gaza. And he walked the Via Dolorosa, following the path Christ supposedly took to his crucifixion–and notes that in Israel’s religious sweepstakes, Christianity finishes third. This reality makes Hare even more aware of being an outsider, the goyish British intellectual from “a country where no one believes anything anymore” adrift in a deeply divided religious country where “they are fighting for something they believe in.” In this place a memorial day is a time for reflection and prayer, not an excuse to miss work and buy a discounted mattress.

Hare’s trip through Israel amounts to something of an antipilgrimage–the journey of a nonbeliever through a land of belief he cannot hope to fully understand, a journey of ideas through a land of stones. And though Hare is an astute and eloquent observer, a question remains as to exactly what purpose his monologue serves. His descriptions are pungently rendered, and his ability to faithfully and accurately summarize a wide array of divergent opinions is admirable. But as the monologue goes on its goals–aside from expressing Hare’s own existential angst and demonstrating his own midlife crisis (he notes that he turned 50 the same year Israel did)–become less clear.

The current political situation in Israel seems to call for a work of great passion, even ferocity–perhaps best exemplified recently by Robert Stone’s novel Damascus Gate. But Hare’s understated observations and sober yet humorous analyses suggest Spalding Gray by way of Paul Theroux; his autobiographical excursion smacks of presumptuous intellectual tourism. And though Hare the writer is not one to shy away from controversy, Hare the character is bright and open-minded but guarded–and at his worst, naive and patronizing.

Hare presents all the activists and politicians he describes as equally committed and, in their own eccentric ways, sympathetic. At the same time that he admires their passion, however, he seems to regard such real-life folks as Menachem Begin’s son Benny–an outspoken proponent of Jewish settlements in disputed territory–more as characters than people, with an amused, somewhat supercilious smile. Early on, as if to defuse accusations of bias, Hare mentions that the writers David Grossman and Philip Roth are his friends and that he’s married to a Turkish Jew. But these references register as “Some of my best friends are…” Jewish name-dropping. Strangest of all, though, is how little Hare reveals of his politics. More journalist or oral historian here than impassioned playwright, he moves from one character to another, confining his remarks to asides or observations of a more personal than political nature. He may be attempting to demonstrate the detachment and ignorance of his culture, but the feeling one comes away with is that Hare is trying extremely hard not to offend.

Hare has performed this monologue in London, New York, and Los Angeles, and he appeared in a movie version that just premiered at the Sundance film festival. He’s not a professional actor, and the decision to perform this work is an intriguing and courageous one (perhaps motivated by Mike Nichols’s first performance in decades–and his first on-screen–when Hare directed Wallace Shawn’s screed The Designated Mourner). Reportedly Hare’s performances lacked polish, but they might have added a dimension of honesty to the troubled journey he describes in Via Dolorosa.

Apple Tree’s elegant production, directed by David Darlow and featuring Kevin Gudahl, shows mixed results. Gudahl is a seasoned, gifted actor whose performance here is graceful and effortless, witty and articulate. His timing is impeccable, his emotional range exemplary. When he visits a museum dedicated to the Holocaust, his shock and amazement are palpable. But, to state the obvious, Gudahl is not Hare–which makes it even more difficult to discern the playwright’s underlying sentiments and politics. Gudahl’s Hare is affable, self-effacing, and a good ten years younger than the actual author. He makes Hare a delightful tour guide but slights the writer’s arrogance and stridency.

Of course it would have been foolhardy of Gudahl to impersonate the Hare of Acting Up, his book about performing Via Dolorosa: there he lambasted theater donors as “rich bastards” and petulantly lashed out at the Tony awards officials for not nominating him (“It is insult and I shall take it as such”). But seeing an actor, even a fine one, play Hare adds yet another layer of detachment to a monologue that’s already alienated. Lost in the retelling, perhaps, is whatever point Hare might have been trying to make about the irrelevance of his own personal, intellectual values in a land as complex and passionate as Israel.