The Hysterical Jesus

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

But even with such an eerie topical connection, Corpus Christi didn't catch fire after its New York run. No major theater has touched it. You could argue that bigger houses are afraid of the controversy. But a reading of the play suggests the reviewers on the nay side were right. In this case, it may not be cowardice influencing major theaters. Refusing to produce Corpus Christi may represent a rare victory for good taste.

The play, such as it is, operates on dual tracks. It's a coming-of-age and coming-out tale of a young gay man in a tightly wound Texas town in the '50s, as well as a religious allegory. The play begins with actors walking onstage in street clothes. They are introduced by their real names and are ritualistically baptized by an actor playing John. (Every actor in the show but those playing Joshua and Judas plays multiple roles). They deliver brief summaries of their characters, and then the actual story begins.

Joshua is born in a cheap motel on a football weekend. The three wise men, room-service waiters (room service at a cheap motel?), offer lame gifts. He grows up hearing the voice of God speaking to him, along with the constant background sound of hammering. He goes to high school, gets picked on by a macho priest and football coach, gets picked on by homophobic bullies, and is revealed as a sensitive boy who thinks his mother didn't like him and whose father was never around. He falls for a boy named Judas; is outed at the high school prom; hitchhikes through the Texas desert; heals a trucker's leprosy; meets James Dean, who tries to tempt him into renouncing God; gathers his disciples, who include fishermen, lawyers, teachers and a hairdresser; sanctifies a gay marriage between two of his disciples; preaches tolerance and compassion for all; heals an AIDS-riddled hustler with a hug; is persecuted; and then is brutally crucified.

Much like the source tale, McNally's play does build to a rather spellbinding climax, a crucifixion that, on paper at any rate, is as brutal and graphic as the real thing must have been. Unfortunately, up to that point, the play feels rushed and hurried—and often unintentionally silly. It's an ungainly mishmash of biblical legend and contemporary gay sloganeering. McNally's intent is pure:Jesus preached love and tolerance for everyone, and he loved gay men as much as he loved anyone else. And he draws an interesting—if rather obvious—parallel between early Christians, persecuted and fearful of announcing themselves, and gay youths.

But the way he tries to get us there, with bad jokes and the occasional tawdry reference or episode, seems terribly contrived, painfully obvious and preachy without much conviction.

In short, it may be a bit irreverent, it may be a bit vulgar from time to time, but it's not a vile, depraved or sleazy play. Nor is it a particularly deep or even profound piece of theater. It's a passion play that doesn't read passionately. Like so many of the other battles waged over freedom of expression recently, the controversy over Corpus Christi seems to be a lot of sound and fury over relatively nothing.

That's not to imply the ideas in this play are not worth getting worked-up over. Do homosexuals have a place in the Christian faith? Should Christians embrace homosexuals as part of God's family? Barton says yes. And that is the real reason he's producing this play, he says, not to infuriate moralistic Christians.

Those who should see the play, he believes, are people like the Reverend Lou Sheldon (to whom Barton wrote a love letter in the Weekly's Aug. 13 edition) and other card-carrying members of the Traditional Values Coalition, or any person who calls himself or herself a Christian who has ever spewed gay-hating rhetoric.

"God loves us best when we love one another," said Barton, who was raised Christian and is gay. "That's the message in this play. That's not a gay-pride statement; that's a very general statement. . . . When we love one another and embrace our diversity, we become better people. By excluding gays and lesbians from the religious life of a church, that church cuts itself off from opening its horizon. It narrows its world rather than opens it up."

His desire to nudge Christians into a deeper understanding of their faith and a more tolerant attitude are secondary to Barton's hope that troubled gay youths struggling with their faith might see this play and realize there is a place for them in Christianity.

"When you spend your whole life growing up in a church that tells you you're shit . . . it's important to hear that you do have value, that you're important, that you're loved, and that God loves you," Barton said. "It's important to hear that. I know from personal experience."

Like Barton, Jay Fraley (who plays Joshua) relates to McNally's message in the play. After hearing for years that a true Christian must love the sinner but hate the sin, Fraley appreciates a more inclusive take.

"I have a clear understanding of what McNally is saying and of what he struggled with," Fraley said. "God loves gay men because of what they are, not despite who they are. God embraces the gay lifestyle as much as any other lifestyle."

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