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A CurtainUp Collage Review
Corpus Christi

By Elyse Sommer

Why a Critical Collage Instead of a CurtainUp Critical Solo?

Sometimes the collage review is our way of dealing with the physical inability to be everywhere in this city of a thousand and one theatrical events. Since we consider a full archival record part of our mission, this system of gathering the views of various critics is an imperfect but feasible alternative to a one-view, in-depth review by a CurtainUp critic.

Other times the collage is our response to dealing with the glass ceiling that still overhangs an internet only publication. The case of Blue Light Company's Oedipus and Manhattan Theater Club's Corpus Christi (which opened within a week of each other in October 1998) serve as prime examples.

Blue Light while a fairly high profile small company has never been the sort of hit factory where the right to review a show was likely to be denied to all but the big guns of the media. However, the casting of two stars with their reputations solid on both screen and stage, helped to turn the planned four-hour re-telling of the Oedipus myth into something of an event. Suddenly everyone wanted to be there when the curtain rose and interest in the theater-going community began to gain steam. Result? Blue Light cut its list of invited critics.

Manhattan Theater Club's re-telling of an old story -- in this case the oldest story of all, the birth and crucifixion of Jesus Christ -- was a play which, despite the by-line of Terrence McNally, was hardly likely to be an instant sellout. Yet, without much information other than that McNally's Jesus and his disciples were gay men, a storm of protests and threats caused Manhattan Theatre Club to cancel the production giving public safety as its reason. This led to an outcry from the proponents of freedom of speech and MTC about-faced, turning its initial caving in to pressure into a public relations boosted act of bravery. Corpus Christi, even more than Oedipus, became an immediate media event. Everyone wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Seats for critics as well as non-MTC members became instantly unavailable. The above-mentioned glass ceiling that at times puts a publication like CurtainUp in the rear of the bus for invited critics The above-mentioned glass ceiling led to our being not so much bumped from this flight, as pre-empted -- thus seeding another collage review.

What's new about this oldest of all stories?

We won't bother to sum up the basic plot since Corpus Christi follows the familiar birth-to-crucifixion (but not redemption) story of Jesus and his Twelve Apostles. Here, in a nutshell is how Terrence McNally revised it:. Jesus and his apostles open the proceedings by explaining their roles. They are all presented as ordinary people in professions ranging from hairdresser and hustler to the usual doctor-lawyer-indian chief professions. The "real" story is all there -- Nativity, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper -- but with substitutions to add the right degree of up-to-date relevancy. True to the title, Joshua is born in a motel room and grows up in the playwright's own home town of Corpus Christi, Tex. Sex while suggested is never graphic and the four-letter words should offer few surprises to today's theater goers. How original did the critics find it? Corpus Christi's originality came under universal attack. Ben Brantley of The New York Times launched into his review with "The excitement stops right after the metal detectors." After summing up the security procedures he went on to say "That's pretty much it for pulse-quickening drama. The play that brought an outraged chorus of protest even before it went into rehearsal is about as threatening, and stimulating, as a glass of chocolate milk."

The paper's erstwhile drama critic and current Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich heartily seconded him, adding: "Culture wars are almost never about culture, and are almost always more dramatic, more entertaining and more farcical than the supposedly incendiary art works that ignite them. Variety's Charles Isherwood was hardly alone when he remarked that "the overlaying of the gay material onto the new messiah’s life doesn’t illuminate anything new in the story of Christ. In fact it begins to seem facile and hectoring" concluding that "one sympathizes with the intent, but the execution is unhappily artless."

On the need to defend the play

All agreed that the show's history demanded that "attention must be paid" (especially in the light of the murder of a young gay man in Wyoming just before the play's official opening) but found that their defense was more of The First Amendment than the play as a work of art.

On the production itself

Linda Winer of Newsday called it "a beautifully staged, disarmingly performed, often witty, sometimes merely jokey," but then added this zapper: " but ultimately earnest and predictable play with little beyond the obvious on its intellectual plate. As a drama, its biggest danger is being overly pious, overly reverent and tied to the inevitable outlines of the story."

Vincent Canby in the Sunday edition of The New York Times his hat to McNally and Mantella by giving the play credit for being "a thoroughly professional production." Tthis turned out to be a backhanded compliment as he went on to describe the overall as having "the teeth-grinding earnestness of an amateur theatrical put on by a neighborhood encounter group."

The unknown acting ensemble received pretty fair marks. Joe Mantello, the director also came off well. Michael Kuchwara of AP liked his "no-frills staging" and saw it as "a kind of medieval mystery play with this troupe of traveling players portraying all the roles." He also singled out the play's opening moments for particular praise.

Lloyd Rose of The Washington Post, who left his real life drama-riddled home town to see what all the fuss was about expressed disdain even for Mantello: "The play -- and Joe Mantello's direction are self-consciously arty. The stage is a bare wooden platform and the backstage area, with its concrete walls painted black, is casually exposed. Here at the end of the '90s, this "natural" staging is beginning to look as artificial as the broad gestures of 19th-century melodrama."

The play's long term effect

Most distressed over the play's long-term effect on serious theater was Fintan O'Toole of The Daily News: "The cranks and bigots who can condemn Terrence McNally's controversial "gay Jesus" play without having seen it don't realize how lucky they are. It seems rather unjust that the open-minded liberals have to sit through the damn thing before condemning it." He concluded: "This play is not worth anyone's anger or anyone's brave defiance. If there is to be outrage, let it be at the MTC's appalling failure of artistic judgment. If there is to be free speech, let it be used to debate how political theater can recover from this fiasco."

Allusions to other plays that either were or were once deemed sacrilegious

Jesus Christ Superstar (Rich, Brantley, Winer)
Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All to You (Winer)
The Monty Python movie The Life of Brian (Brantley)
The 1971 musical Godspell (Brantley, Winer)
The Deputy (about Pope Pius XII's moral stance during the Holocaust), which opened to similar sturm and drang in the sixties and also became a publicity generated hot ticket with a Tony "for courage" awarded to its producer. (Rich).

Quoted examples of humor -- genuine, inane, intended and inadvertent

The pregnant Mary to Joseph: "I'm a virgin, Joe" and his comeback "Nobody knows that better than I do."

Joshua to his first sexual partner Simon: "You can come no closer to me than your body. Everything else you will never touch."

When an apostle reminds Joshua that he had advised the turning of the other cheekJoshua, after hitting a hypocritical priest, an apostle points that he had previously advised them to turn the other cheek. Joshua's "I must have been in a very good mood. Do not take everything I say so seriously." This after he has just hit a hypocrytical priest and his reminded by an apostle of his previous advice to turn the other cheek.

Judas in response to Joshua's inquiry about how he's doing:"I own three restaurants. Just try to get in."

Terrence McNally's dramaturgy

While praised for occasional wit, McNally's reputation as a major playwright invites such criticisms as Mr. Brantley's: "Corpus Christi feels lazy. It rides piggyback on the mighty resonances guaranteed by the story that inspired it, and rarely reaches beyond the easy novelty of making its central character gay . . . a minor work from a major playwright that probably would have come and gone quietly had it not been for its early and vociferous opponents. As it is, it is saddled with a weight that its stick-figure shoulders cannot support."

Is it really blasphemous?

As Lloyd Rose of The Washington Post put it: "Many people will think this play blasphemous. Others will just find it embarrassing." The scene singled out by Michael Feingold of The Village Voice as the most riveting and disquieting to the religious right is one which "shows Joshua confronting the age of AIDS. Philip, the Greek apostle, is represented as an HIV-positive hustler, whom Joshua heals with an embrace. This sexually charged moment--undoubtedly the one likely to cause dogmatic Christians the deepest disquiet--takes its power from its immediate relevance." There was also this from Fintan O'Toole: "The terrible truth about Corpus Christi; is that it is simply not good enough to be blasphemous. Blasphemy is a powerful assault on accepted beliefs. Corpus Christi has all the power of a slap across the face with a limp lettuce leaf."

And finally . . .

A critic who went but whose paper refused to air his opinions (said to have been negative) was Nelson Pressley of the conservative The Washington Times. Mr. Pressley immediately resigned, which, considering the shortage of publications open to theater criticism is probably a true act of courage. If he fails to find a well-paying, more free speech oriented home soon, we'd be happy to post his opinions any time!.


The opinions that were expressed and excerpted here convince me that it's safe to advise readers to save their money (MTC members might just take advantage of the return ticket policy for this show making some of the sold-out seats available) and wait for Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told (seen by this writer at its Williamstown world premiere-- the review) which is scheduled to arrive at New York Theatre Workshop next month. Rudnick's replay of another familiar bible story, Adam and Eve (now Adam and Steve) is inventive and amusing and may in the fine tuning between Williamstown and New York deliver fully on the promise so clear during its initial run.

By Terrence McNally
Directed by Joe Mantello
With Christopher Fitzgerald, Michael Hall, Michael Irby, Ken Leung, Matthew Mabe, Drew McVety, Ben Scheaffer, Troy Sostillio, Greg Zola.
Set design: Loy Arcenas.
Manhattan Theatre Club (212/581-1212):br> opened 10/13//98
Collage Review 10/17/98 by Elyse Sommer

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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998