Express route to controversy in Atlanta

Tuner's subject matter is anathema to ticket buyers

Around the holidays, the biggest challenge for many theater companies is convincing audiences to care about yet another staging of “A Christmas Carol.” This season in Atlanta, however, Actor’s Express wants to stir up buzz about a less familiar property — namely, a pedophile musical.

The Express has already started pushing “Love Jerry,” a new tuner written and composed by Megan Gogerty that follows the tortured story of Jerry, who develops a sexual relationship with his nephew while trying to stay friends with the boy’s father.

A delicate, often heart-wrenching piece of theater, the show, which preems Jan. 22 at the Express, never descends to shock-value tactics as it explores volatile terrain, and its lilting country songs give the characters emotionally vulnerable texture. Should it manage to attract a crowd, “Love Jerry” could very well leave them cheering.

But how do you convince anyone to come sing along with a child abuser? It’s a double-edged question: Not only can untested musicals be notoriously hard to launch, especially when the writer is an unknown, but pedophilia (not to mention incest to boot) has proven anathema to ticket buyers.

At the movies, for example, heaps of critical praise couldn’t produce box office for such abuse-oriented films as “The Woodsman,” marketed as a redemption tale with a spooky secret, and “Happiness,” presented as a boundary-pushing comedy. And though John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” has had a stellar Broadway run, that play stays in more comfortable territory by never confirming whether its protagonist has molested someone or not.

In “Love Jerry,” there’s no question what’s going on, yet Gogerty refrains from demonizing the title character. She focuses instead on the entire family’s attempt to comprehend what’s happened.

This moral grayness makes the play even trickier to market, yet it’s also what convinced Express artistic director Jasson Minadakis to produce it. He says he “absolutely believes” in the show and is continually “shocked by how powerfully it expresses itself.”

Minadakis also feels “Love Jerry” perfectly suits his theater, which has a reputation for quirky, Off Broadwayish fare, such as this season’s “Bug” and “The Long Christmas Ride Home.” In fact, he first heard about the script because staffers at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, where the play had been a finalist in January’s graduate playwriting competition, kept saying his company should give it a home.

“I was called by just about every staff member at the Alliance and told about it,” he says, and Kent Gash, the Alliance’s associate a.d., eventually was hired to direct the production.

No doubt the local pedigree the Alliance confers will help boost sales, as will the advance excitement created in the theater community by the play’s reading at the playwriting competition. Gogerty reports the impassioned post-reading discussion lasted 90 minutes — as long as the play itself — and only confirmed her belief that “if you can get people to see this thing, the word of mouth will spread like wildfire.”

To get more mouths talking, Express marketing director Sherry Ward has held meetings with local abuse survivor groups. She knows, though, that some of her most important work will be in crafting the images and taglines attached to the show’s publicity.

“We are kind of starting at zero with this one,” she admits. “The challenge has been that when (you are) doing a musical about child abuse … some people might think it’s campy, but we also don’t want to go too dark.”

With that in mind, initial poster concepts featuring a man putting candy in a child’s hand were jettisoned as being too frank. Now the promos are more suggestive, featuring an eerie shadow of a man in a clown nose staring into a room. (The clown refers to a somewhat supernatural character who tempts Jerry.)

But no matter what the posters’ design, the show’s themes may still leave many Atlantans nonplussed. The city is famously prone to legit controversy. In 1993, a county commission rescinded all public arts funding rather than support a staging of Terence McNally’s gay-friendly “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” And just last year, the police shut down a production of “Naked Boys Singing” — which the Express hosted but didn’t produce — for indecency.

Add this to the general audience apathy for the unknown, and it could seem foolhardy for any Atlanta company to stray from surefire hits.

Minadakis says he and his local contemporaries remain committed to risk. He insists Atlanta’s population “could be very turned on by challenging theater” as long as they keep getting the chance to see it.

“Are we making it more difficult for ourselves than we could?” he asks. “Yeah. But as a theater community that’s just emerging onto the national scene, it would be wretched for us to back down.”

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