Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi opened Friday at the Empire Theatre with two Santa Ana cops and a TV news crew outside, a metal detector inside the theater's diminutive lobby, and a perfect absence of angry fundamentalist protesters. The play itself—the sweet little life story of a gay Jesus in Texas—came and went in less than two hours, leaving us time to grab coffee at the nearby Gypsy Den, drive home, and catch ourselves leaving the theater on the late news.
It's unclear what all the fuss was supposed to be about. It's already mainstream Christian theology that Jesus was God "enfleshed"; the genius of Nikos Kazantzakis' 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ was to imagine the God who itched inside that flesh. Since then, we've endured Kazantzakis Lite, a long procession of marginalized Jesuses:insane, homeless, French-Canadian, Puerto Rican. McNally's gimmick is the gay Jesus.
McNally had already established himself as a force on Broadway—with Kiss of the Spider Woman(musical version), Love! Valour! Compassion! and others—when Corpus Christi was run out of New York shortly after it opened one year ago. The force behind the play's abrupt departure wasn't so much the conservative Catholic League deployed on behalf of an Almighty so impotent he requires honest-to-goodness dopes to watch his intellectual back. No, McNally's lynch mob was composed of the city's theater critics, who dismissed his script as banal, amateur, obvious, a "Godspell for gay folks."
In fact, the script is banal—if by banal one means that it hews closely to the source tale. Thankfully, as staged by Rude Guerrilla, the story is more compelling than the script. Joshua is born to a pair of benighted Texans; his mother (Eric Eisenbrey, delivering humorously on his character's promise in the prologue to "play the shit out of this part") would like to call him Jesus, but his father says the name "sounds like a Mexican." The kid suffers in childhood, pounded by boys who sharpen their manliness on his petite frame. Joshua knows—but is disturbed by the fact—that he is called to something cosmic. Through it all, Joshua (played in wonderful Kazantzakis form, all doubtful and tempted, by Jay Michael Fraley) denies his divinity at every turn.
So far, so very good—until Joshua meets James Dean in one of the script's several ham-fisted moments of postmodern pop culturalism: renounce your divinity, James Dean says, and I'll give you fame. Joshua hasn't shown interest in either divinity or fame, but suddenly, in an oblique script's most oblique moment, he opts for the former, and—poof—we have Christ out of the closet.
That's the problem with Jesus in the post-Kazantzakis world. After Last Temptation, any literature that fails to explain the metamorphosis—the dawning realization of a man that he is also God—is cheating, wanting to humanize Jesus without answering the one big question: Why does any human ever sacrifice himself for anybody else?
McNally's script offers no real answer. But the story of Jesus is almost indestructible. Almost. In one particularly execrable choice, director Dave Barton has Jesus' disciples formally christen themselves by dancing to "We Are Family," making the play feel all the more like some 1970s high school project to rewrite the Gospels in street slang. And there are moments in the final scene when those of us who survived Catholic school will feel that the nuns were right when they predicted we would be made to suffer eternally, when McNally harps on the gays-are-people-too message most of us already accept.
But assisted by very able actors—including Matt Tully as the intense Bartholomew and Sean Cox as the sociopathic Judas—Barton saves McNally from his Hallmarkian self. However much we resist it, we are brought to Calvary again. And, in McNally's most interesting but unexamined choice, that is where the play ends: before the resurrection.
Corpus Christi by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. at the Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (open discussion follows Sun. performances only). Through Dec. 19. $10-$12.