nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 9, 2012
A familiar story can often illuminate a current event. In Heresy A. R. Gurney’s futuristic comedy now playing at The Flea downtown, the playwright uses the story of Christ to explain why Homeland Security is keeping a college activist in jail after a fiery public appearance. In this case, it doesn’t as much illuminate as exaggerate parallels that are amusing, but rarely hilarious. However, talent goes a long way, and the cast, direction, and the lively dialog in this play command attention
Heresy begins with an anxious middle-aged couple, Joseph and Mary, arriving at Homeland Security to appeal to Joseph’s old National Guard buddy, Pontius Pilate, to release their son, Chris, who was arrested after an anonymous phone call from Chris’s roommate, Pedro, who believes only protective custody can save Chris’s life. It was Pedro that originally cajoled Chris into participating in this damning public debate on “The Role of Religion in Contemporary Life” – a speech designed to offend just about everyone. Joseph and Mary are met at Homeland Security by Mark, a summer intern, who records everything that is said, changing occasional words and phrases to better fit the story of Christ. He also tends bar for those present. Mary, an aggressive liberal, is pumped up and ready to demand her son’s release. When Pilate, the authority figure in military dress, arrives with his wife, Phyllis - polished, dim, and deliciously inappropriate, he finds it difficult to make a decision. Lena, a whore who has slept with all the men except Joseph, arrives unexpectedly, and helps to push the plot forward.
Although the plot is set in the near future, the scenario is closer to the present than we’d like to imagine. The military influence, the indecisiveness of leaders, the power of straw polls, and the self-satisfaction of ultimately coming to a conclusion – all sound familiar and probable. It takes Heresy a while to gain its rhythm. Partly, this is due to the rage that Annette O’Toole brings to Mary when the play starts. Director Jim Simpson may have seen this fiery emotion as necessary. In my opinion, it is pitched so high that O’Toole has nowhere to take it from there. The eventual presence of Pilate, Phyllis, Pedro, and Lena ameliorate this. Each has his own perspective. Chris, the young man responsible for the gathering, never appears on stage; however, his desire to make some small change in the way the world works gives those present an excuse to play out their own agendas. There is much humor and word play throughout, but it is the ending – where the characters explain what Chris was trying to do, and when pressed, offer what they’ll do if he’s released - that actually provides heft to the play.
As expected, Gurney’s dialog crackles. His characters know one another, and there are no pregnant pauses. Rather, their speech spills quickly from one to another in amusing references, leaving no time to digest an analogy or contemplate the acuity of a metaphor. That is one of the strengths of Heresy, and Simpson does a superb job of pushing the pace. And, the actors respond.
Reg E. Cathey, with his tall solid frame and deep voice, has tremendous stage presence as Pontius Pilate. His physicality makes his ambivalence all the more ironic. Tommy Crawford turns in a solid performance as Mark, the young intern, eager to impress anyone who will listen as he shares his editorial changes in the transcript. Kathy Najimy’s Phyllis is superb. She has a Barbra Streisand aesthetic to her: slightly plain, yet too polished to dismiss. As Phyllis, she delivers quick wit while simultaneously looking clueless. She delivers her best lines while her character is inebriated, and yet she resists accentuating her drunkenness. Najimy understands the importance of nuance. She’s a standout. Other cast members include Steve Mellor as Joseph, Danny Rivera as Pedro, and Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena.
Credit goes to Kate Foster for a spacious and appealing set. Bold costume design, particularly for Pilate and Phyllis, goes to Claudia Brown; and effective lighting and sound credits go to Brian Aldous and Jeremy S. Bloom, respectively.