nytheatre.com review by Ben Trawick-Smith
August 17, 2010
With The Mission, playwright Jules Tasca explores a wide range of issues: the morality of revenge, the hypocrisy of religion, and a number of other themes that would ruin the plot if I revealed them. At the heart of the piece, however, is an age old question: does an ethical end ever justify violent means? In a world where we choose the lesser of many evils, where do we draw the line?
Set in a prison's conjugal visit room, the two-character play charts the strange relationship between an inmate and the priest who visits him. The prisoner, Joe, is doing time for attempted murder (we learn the motivation for his crime later in the play). The priest, Father James, has come to Joe to provide spiritual support. The convict is, as the priest puts it, a "cut above" the average inmate: Joe is a self-educated young man who spouts long, erudite monologues about the philosophical dimensions of his incarceration. When the play takes a dark turn in the middle, both men begin to reveal the hidden motives behind their encounters.
Act One is largely a series of philosophical debates between Joe and Father James, with Joe arguing that his crime was justified, and the priest arguing that murder is wrong no matter the circumstances. Over the course of the act, the dialogue gets more and more abstract, touching on Machiavellian politics, chess, theology, and the city-states of Renaissance Italy. I admire Tasca for including so many ideas in his play, but they detract from the human side of the drama; the relentless chatter swallows up the back story of these characters.
The second act, on the other hand, involves a series of twists and reversals worthy of a TV cop show. While I won't spoil the surprise, I will say that these developments undermine many of the themes Tasca establishes in the first act. Such u-turns can be a powerful dramatic tool, but here they render the characters' intentions so confusing that we barely know who these men are by the end.
Tasca is a smart, eloquent writer who crafts lovely pieces of rhetoric. He struggles to integrate these into the action, however, and long stretches of the play are unfocused and pedantic. Compounding this problem is that Tasca makes few concrete choices about his characters: outside of some general details, the men are placeless, classless, and lack any personal idiosyncrasies. As it is hard for us to grasp who they are, it is difficult to care about them.
Director Ken Terrell similarly avoids decisions. He keeps the atmosphere genial and non-threatening, even in the more dramatic scenes. He also makes some strange choices about the smaller details of the production (for instance, he plays hip-hop during blackouts even though it's hard to imagine either character listening to that genre). Otoja Abit, as Joe, and Joey Mintz, as Father James, take their cues from Tasca and Terrell, and play their characters as neutrally as possible. They both have some nice moments during the more emotional points in the script, but they invest Tasca's labyrinthine dialogue with little urgency.
The Mission has a lot of interesting points to make about violence, faith, and self-delusion. Unfortunately, Tasca and Terrell have not quite decided what kind of play they want this to be. Is it a drama of ideas? A character study? Or a police procedural of sorts? Each of these notions is intriguing, but they work at cross-purposes when they occupy the same stage.