Toward the close of David Greig’s Damascus, a play in 59E59’s Brits Off-Broadway series, the dean of a Syrian university inveighs against Paul, a visiting Scotsman. Paul has praised the mosque and the city’s streets, but the professor contends: “You know nothing about the country I live in. . . . You know nothing of its complexities and conflicts.” Damascus, which concerns Paul’s efforts to sell his English-as-a-foreign-language textbook to the university, isn’t quite as naïve as Paul, yet it displays its own touristic quality. While Greig makes quick trips to several different genres—romance, political intrigue, even buddy comedy—the play never settles down to inhabit any of them.
Happily, the ill-defined script still allows for a wonderful performance from Ewen Bremner as Paul. An odd-looking actor, best known for roles in films such as Trainspotting, Bremner uses his chinless face and beady eyes to fine effect, creating the portrait of a bemused, affable, and achingly weak man. There’s some strong supporting work as well, but Greig doesn’t seem interested in providing these actors and characters with a focused narrative. As a character says at the end of the first act, echoing the play’s lax design: “What can I say? This is Damascus. Sometimes it snows. Sometimes things happen.”