Busted Jesus Comix
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 14, 2005
I loved Busted Jesus Comix the first time I saw it, two years ago; and I love it all over again in the revival, co-produced by Blue Coyote Theatre Company and Access Theater, which features the same director and most of the same cast members (along with much-enhanced production design by Kyle Ancowitz, Evan O'Brient, and Jonna McElrath).
What's probably more important, though, is that I found BJC even more pertinent and relevant today than I did in 2003. Freedom of expression, in varying forms, is under serious attack in the United States right now. Playwright David Johnston and his collaborators are courageously defending rights that we should not simply take for granted these days, in this scary, funny, subversive, and ultimately uplifting cautionary comedy about abuse of all kinds against our citizenry.
Marco is a 19-year-old kid applying for a job at a Dazzle Cups (think Starbucks) in Manhattan. His interviewer is a proudly out lesbian who talks the corporate lingo fluently but also has a brain—lucky for him—and as she asks him questions, he remembers (and sometimes recounts for her) the events from his recent past that have brought him to this place. His story, as it turns out, is a doozy.
Marco used to live in Florida, where he was part of a seriously dysfunctional family. His most recent trouble came about when he drew a comic book, called "Busted Jesus Comix," which depicted, among other things, two teenage boys taking crack cocaine and having sex with each other and then with a little baby whom they eventually "fuck... into cream cheese." Marco brought his creation to the comic book store where he worked, and soon after was arrested for obscenity. His crackerjack court-appointed defense attorney gets him off on probation with so-called lenient conditions that include a course of therapy with a conservative state-appointed psychiatrist and a three-year prohibition against drawing ANYTHING or having any contact with minors. (Marco: "I'm nineteen. Everyone I know is a minor.")
It would all feel like something out of Kafka if it didn't instead feel 100% possible in America in 2005.
Johnston captures the aggressive beneficence of self-appointed guardians of morality with savage accuracy:
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #2: Another case of the liberal media imposing its agenda on the rest of us.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #1: A secular society imposing its will.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #2: David and Goliath.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #1: We're David.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #2: And we are not allowed to question the decisions of this secular society.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #1: Because of "free speech." .....
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #2: Read it? No. No, I have not read it.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #1: You don't have to drink the poison if it says so on the label.
COMMUNITY COUNCIL LADY #2: You don't have to go to hell to meet the devil. The title was enough for me.
And he exposes some of the questionable tactics of same with searing wit (it would qualify as hilarious parody if it didn't ring so true):
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: How many copies of this issue were printed?
MARCO: They weren't printed. We ran 'em off at Kinko's. ....
PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: How many were distributed?
MARCO: Seven.... I had one, Larry the storeowner had one, we sold four... oh, and the undercover agents bought one.
Of course BJC is very funny, throughout: Johnston deftly skewers contemporary targets from Starbucks culture to homosexual recovery groups with real aplomb. The play also has real substance apart from its activist content: when Marco reveals what he suffered, as a boy, at the hands of his brother (now a born-again Christian) it is harrowing and heart-breaking. And the relationship that starts to form between Marco and the Dazzle Cups manager feels real and heart-warming.
Gary Shrader's production is taut, intense, and smart, and the cast of ten is excellent. Vince Gatton is appealingly sympathetic as Marco, a young man who's already been through more than his share of difficulties and is enduring them with a compassionate humanity that we can only admire. R. Jane Casserly is on-target as the Dazzle Cups manager, particularly as she gets to know Marco better and lets her hair down a bit. Tracey Gilbert gets the Defense Attorney's self-serving mix of patronizing maternalism and harried overwork just right, while David Lapkin is appropriately slimy as the Prosecutor; John Koprowski is so perfect as the condescending, moralizing Psychiatrist that you almost find yourself trusting him in places (aargh!). Paul Caiola and Joseph C. Yeargain have fun as the Community Council Ladies and as the characters in Marco's comic book (the offending passage is re-enacted more than once—in the broadest and most cartoonish of styles, I might add). Brian Fuqua and Bruce Barton are hilarious as members of "Up from the Closet," a recovery group for "ex-gays." Michael Bell completes the ensemble as Marco's "saved" but indifferent brother, Jeffrey.
Busted Jesus Comix is uncompromising, and needs to be: this is a play about jolting us out of a complacency that's starting to get dangerous. It will make you think as much as, if not more than, it will make you laugh—but don't let that keep you away from it, because for one thing it makes you laugh a great deal, and for another thing, if you aren't already thinking about the stuff this play talks about, well, then it's time to start. Now how's this for an ending: Busted Jesus Comix is one of the funniest and smartest shows in town right now and, without question, the most patriotic. See it soon.