The Hysterical Jesus

Gay activists are ready for a fight over a Santa Ana production of Terrence McNallys worst play ever

•Third, this play doesn't deserve any of the hubbub. It doesn't deserve it because it isn't an offensive play on religious grounds. It's an allegory, using Christian iconography to tell a coming-out story of a young gay man who is beaten and killed for his sexuality. Sure, there are four-letter words and some rather racy situations—the Christ-like figure heals a hustler with AIDS; Judas talks about his big dick. But any honest student of the Bible would surely be more offended by forking out 30 pieces of cash to watch camels and horses stumble across a stage during a certain soulless Christmas spectacular at a certain glittering cathedral in Garden Grove than spending $12 to hear gay men talk about how God loves us best when we love one another.

But—and here's the real rub—this play doesn't deserve the commotion because it isn't a very good play.

One could argue—and hey, many reviews in other cities have—that Corpus Christi is a really bad play. And that may be the most important, sobering and angering fact of this whole affair. Whether the controversy over this play breaks with all the intensity of an April shower or with a deluge of condemnation, the simple fact is that people are getting worked up over a bunch of words that don't really warrant the outrage because they don't add up to much of a play.

Playwright McNally admits as much in his preface to the published version when he explains—you might say apologizes—that this story is told in the "theatrical tradition of medieval morality plays . . . no suspense." He calls it "more a religious ritual than a play," the difference being that "a play teaches us new insight into the human condition. A ritual is an action we perform over and over because we have to."

Ritual, play, blasphemous diatribe, heartfelt exploration of the sacredness of sexuality:none of it matters if the thing isn't worth seeing. And, if you believe the great majority of the reviews, it isn't. Some people have called the reviews mixed. Yeah, like the martini is a mixed drink: five parts gin to one part vermouth.

New York Times critic Vincent Canby: "The entire production has the teeth-grinding earnestness of an amateur theatrical put on by a neighborhood encounter group. . . . The Passion of Jesus has all of the mystery of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs put on by a bunch of fellows who appear to shop at the Gap. . . . It is difficult to know what Mr. McNally has in mind. To celebrate the compatibility of Christian beliefs and gay life? To point out the hypocrisy of much Christian practice in relation to gay believers? To state the obvious?" New York 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." Times of London: "The true scandal lies not in McNally's attempt to present Jesus Christ as gay, but in the banality of the script." New York Times critic Ben Brantley: "The excitement stops right after the metal detectors." Dallas Morning News: "After all the fuss, Corpus Christi turns out to be Godspell for gay folks. . . . Seeing the actual show makes you wonder whether the company hadn't been using the initial protests [against the play] as an excuse to dump an embarrassingly thin script." Variety: "Facile and hectoring . . . McNally is checking off all the proper points to be scored against the enemies of gay people who use the Bible as a weapon. Again, one sympathizes with the intent, but the execution is unhappily artless." Washington Post: "It would be impossible to take the play as seriously as it takes itself."

Time hasn't tempered the wrath of reviewers. Productions last month in Houston and Denver were ripped by local papers as lacking "stylistic consistency and dramatic conviction" and for being "more superficial and far-fetched than probing or iconoclastic. One gets the feeling that McNally is guilty of the very offense he seems to condemn: bending the scriptures to fit a narrow set of beliefs instead of making the requisite leap of faith to accommodate a more inclusive vision."

So who liked it? Time magazine, which writes about theater about as often as Sports Illustrated covers greyhound racing, called it one of the best plays of the year and noted cultural expert Dick Schaap called it "moving" on ABC's World News.

The most thoughtful praise came from the Village Voice's Michael Feingold: "However unsatisfactory as a work of art or an interpretation of Jesus, Corpus Christi is a brave act. McNally's willingness to expose himself and his artistic home to danger, for the right to declare that no such danger should exist, does him honor. That he has evoked hysteria instead of serious discussion from his opponents is the proof that he was right."

The play took on more resonance shortly after it opened in October 1998, when Matthew Shepard's crucified body was discovered lashed to a wooden fence in rural Wyoming. The parallel of persecution and intolerance of homosexuals, along with the brutal violence inflicted on gay men, was too obvious to ignore.

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