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So I went to see Preaching to the Perverted the other night, expecting firebrands and bomb-throwing, and sure enough what I saw on the Woolly Mammoth stage was shocking: Holly Hughes, notorious lesbian and controversial performance artist, wears penny loafers.

Also capri pants.

The really startling thing, though, is that Perverted—a reflective sort of rant about Hughes’ adventures as an arts-funding lightning rod and as a First Amendment petitioner before an unsympathetic U.S. Supreme Court—winds up being almost less aggressive than the artist’s wardrobe. It’s bland, really, despite the occasional flash of morbid humor and an on-again, off-again sense of vulnerability that promises a more personal connection than Hughes ever quite delivers. It’s not coincidence that the image that most lingers several days after the show is the one Hughes conjures with an argument that the court’s imposing home is built not of marble but of “bricks of ice cream—hard, cold, and white.”

That rather strained fantasy serves as a jumping-off point for a brief excursion into Hughes’ similarly strained relationship with her father, an oddball narrative diversion that blends the personal and political to no discernible end. (There’s a white-guilt thing going on, it’s true, but Hughes never pursues it far beyond those curious images of dairy-case pallor.) What’s more affecting, if only for the way it reminds the audience that there’s a person behind every persona, is the way Hughes chronicles the confusion and pain she felt at the height of the media frenzy that attended her court battles.

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Which, as some will recall, followed a move by the National Endowment for the Arts to yank grants to Hughes and three other artists—collectively the “NEA Four,” a catchall Hughes clearly has come to loathe—whose work was denounced as indecent by political opportunists playing to the howling primitives on the religious right. The anti-smut cry was taken up by the usual suspects—the Rev. Donald Wildmon, Beverly LaHaye, and dear old Jesse Helms, the last of whom Hughes salutes with an astringent aside: In the age of the New Democrat, she says wryly, “Jesse Helms believes in the left more than the left does.”

Their cavils, the ravings of the politicians, and the offbeat vitriol of anonymous letter-writers threatening violence in Jesus’ name all unsettle Hughes in a way that’s only compounded by the crass assumptions and blunt questions that come from the media: Did she do it for the publicity? Would she ever have been famous for her talent alone? Judged and found wanting by an audience that mostly never saw her work, Hughes seems surprised and hurt to discover that politics is a blood sport, that exaggerations and distortions and outright untruths are the tools of the game.

It’s a curiously naive response, if at root a righteous one—and it’s of a piece with the essential decency that fuels Hughes’ bafflement at the tangled processes of constitutional justice. She sees the Supreme Court as indifferent to her case, its elaborate protocols as designed to make its proceedings impenetrable and impressive to the supplicant citizen, its hearings as inane theatrics predicated on a political game of gotcha—and these things infuriate her precisely because they run counter to the ideals America claims to hold sacred. (Never mind that she may not hold them sacred herself; it’s the hypocrisy that gets to her.)

Would that everything about Preaching to the Perverted had the resonance that attends those moments of bewilderment and hurt. But when Hughes’ tone turns to one of outrage, when she vents her anger via a laundry list of government-censored art projects and a blizzard of political-rally paraphernalia, the effort feels suddenly uninspired despite the stridency in her voice.

What’s most disappointing about that eventual flatness is that Hughes has begun the evening on a convincing note of exasperation, pulling a pistol on an announcer who’s overfond of that despised “NEA Four” label, literally getting things started with a bang. It’s fast, it’s funny—and it’s theatrical, in a way almost nothing else about Preaching to the Perverted turns out to be.

Part essay, part travelogue, part lament for a land divided, David Hare’s Via Dolorosa is a meditation on the Middle East that does for Israelis and Arabs what his Racing Demon did for divided factions in the Church of England: It listens, hard, stopping only rarely to interject its own opinions.

The playwright’s trip through the Holy Land brought him into the drawing rooms and offices of Arab intellectuals and Israeli settlers alike, and the one-man play he created from the experience mostly reflects their thoughts on the seemingly endless conflict that divides them. Vividly drawn and beautifully arranged, Hare’s scenes capture in intimate detail the tangled threads of poverty and privilege and passion that make the conundrum of Israel and Palestine seem so insoluble, delineating with equal facility the earnestly absolutist textual hagglings of an Orthodox settler family, the scathing contempt of a secular-minded Israeli intellectual for the land greed of certain compatriots, and the powerful frustrations of Palestinian moderates disgusted with the corruption and excess of Yasser Arafat’s post-Oslo government.

The lines of Hare’s first-person account—a beautifully poised David Bryan Jackson stands in for the playwright in Theater J’s elegant production—are characteristically refined, contrasting the broad highways and easy sensuality of Israel with the “half-built houses and piles of rotting garbage” in Gaza; at the border, he remembers, “dust comes down and we have stepped back 60 years.” Insisting throughout that “I am just a pen,” he nevertheless pulls back occasionally to ask plaintively, pointedly, “What is the way forward?”—and to register observations that, depending on the viewer’s perspective, will seem obvious or inflammatory in turn: “How odd, how egregious Israel must look to the Arab eye,” an island as it is in a sea of Arab nations; and elsewhere, “Nothing unsettles the settlers more than the idea that Rabin’s death was their fault.”

The wry humor in that last turn of phrase is another of Hare’s signatures, and he employs it deftly here to defuse tense moments and underscore the curious dynamics he’s caught up in: “At lunch I try to avoid trigger words, like ‘Rabin’—and ‘Bible,’” he observes at one point. And later, about a holy site claimed by various factions, the offhand phrase “sects and the single church” comes into play.

But there is a graceful sadness threaded throughout Via Dolorosa, too, in the way it dwells on the power of art to grapple with such conflicts—and acknowledges, at last, that in this one overwhelming morass, mere art may be a wholly inadequate response. Hare raises the hope of art’s transformational influence on the real world with references to Chekhov and to Shopping & Fucking, to a local woman who finds resonance in his own play Plenty, and to a Romeo and Juliet in which Palestinians and Israelis square off as the feuding Verona families—and in a strange passage that frames the martyred Rabin as a Holy Land Becket, gone knowingly to his assassination in a calculated political move.

To dash that hope once he’s raised it, he approaches more obliquely—the way he comes at many things—in a spare scene set at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust monument in Jerusalem. The observation this time is almost offhand, having to do with the way the sculptures and paintings on display seem insubstantial beside the artifacts and documentary evidence that speak with such crushing gravity of that great inhumanity.

In an atmosphere as charged as the one Jackson and director Nick Olcott create at Theater J, it’s hard not to hear the implicit parallel between those artistic responses and Hare’s—and hard not to mourn for his frustration at their shared weakness. CP