Danny Rivera, Ariel Woodiwiss, Kathy Najimy, and Reg E. Cathey in HERESY. Photo by Hunter Canning.
BOTTOM LINE: Jesus Christ is a left-wing student rebel in this hilarious takedown of contemporary Christianity, U.S. consumerism, and war mongering.
Back in 1995, Joan Osborne popularized a song called One of Us which asked a less than subtle question: “What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on a bus / Trying to make his way home."
Playwright A.R. Gurney takes this notion one step further and posits Jesus as a 21st-century college kid named Chris who has been incarcerated “for his own protection” by the Department of Homeland Security. As the story unfolds, his stepfather and mom — not surprisingly, they’re named Joseph (played with dry wit by Steve Mellor) and Mary (played with fervor and pathos by Annette O’Toole) — find their way to the Liberty Lounge where they expect to meet with Pontius Pilate (a strong Reg E. Cathey), AKA The Decider, and his wife Phyllis (the spectacular and hilarious Kathy Najimy), about their son’s detention. Turns out Joseph and Pilate and Phyllis and Mary are old buddies from back in the day. Phyllis has nothing but contempt for the bohemian couple, but has come to her husband’s office to meet-and-greet her former pals and rub salt in the wounds of the less materially successful pair. It’s no mystery why the two families have lost touch; carpenter Joseph and activist Mary have absolutely nothing in common with the utterly bourgeois Pilate and Phyllis. Still, as the reunion unfolds, Pilate’s heartstrings are pulled and he agrees to use his power to investigate, and maybe help, his friends’ troubled son.
Enter Pedro Monahan (an earnest Danny Rivera), Chris’s best friend and roommate, a devout Catholic who quickly admits his culpability in putting Chris behind bars. Now wracked with guilt, Pedro and Lena (a femme fatale with a heart of gold ably played by Ariel Woodiwiss), Chris’s former-sex-worker-turned-monogamous-girlfriend, explain that they are unsure of the best path to take. Is it better for Chris to be held in protective custody where his opponents can’t hurt -- and possibly kill -- him? Or, should he be allowed to continue traveling the country to preach against rampant consumerism, the fallacy of the American Dream, and the violence that is born of frustrated ambitions and expectations?
As their conundrum is presented, Pedro lays out the back-story and reveals the reason for his concern. It began, he tells Pilate et al, when Chris used the podium at a local Catholic parish to rail against organized religion. While the Jesuit pastors were appalled by Chris’s presentation, the audience hung on his every word and the Good Fathers ultimately agreed to honor the young firebrand by making a donation to St. Savior’s Rest Home for Elderly Priests in his name. No go, Chris responded; this is not a charity he supports since he has little respect for most Men of the Cloth. He then went further, ratcheting up his denunciation of church’ morality -- in no uncertain terms supporting the use of contraception and the ordination of women priests. What’s more, he lambasted the prevailing celibacy rules as ridiculous, calling them a joke. As news of his declarations spread, many churchgoers called for Chris’s head, prompting Pedro and Lena to forge a scheme to protect their outspoken chum.
Yes, it sounds preachy, and there are moments when it is, but this does not detract from the play’s charm or wit. In fact, a volley of sharp barbs -- Najimy in particular offers a few pointed zingers -- make Heresy an entertaining romp. And while it is surely provocative -- some might even say sacrilegious -- it is a straightforward indictment of religious hypocrisy, the American fixation on shopping, and the endless drive for world supremacy that has earned the U.S. enmity across the globe.
Note: Karen Ziemba replaces Kathy Najimy beginning October 19th.
(Heresy plays at The Flea, 41 White Street, through November 4, 2012. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7PM; Saturdays and Sundays at 3PM and 7PM. Tickets are $45 for performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sunday matinees; $50 on Friday and Saturday nights; and $10 for Saturday matinees. To purchase tickets, visit theflea.org or call 212.352.3101.)