The Gospel according to B’way

In shows such as 'Doubt' and 'Altar Boyz,' religion makes an unorthodox comeback

NEW YORK — Is religion the new politics on Gotham stages?

Just six months ago, as election fever shaped the cultural landscape, political themes were figuring in plays all over town. Now suddenly, in the wake of a winning presidential campaign in which Christian values played an unprecedented part, theological matters are popping up both on Broadway and Off.

The booming voice — supplied by John Cleese — of a petulant God in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” is just the tip of the iceberg in a spring season boasting more religion than a Baptist bible picnic, though not necessarily adopting a view that will hearten holy-rollers.

Consider the following:

  • John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” which opens its Broadway transfer run at the Walter Kerr March 31, centers on a nun’s suspicions that a priest has been sexually molesting a schoolboy;

  • The Public Theater has two religious-themed shows playing concurrently, including Stephen Adly Guirgis’ audacious “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”;

  • David Mamet’s giddy courtroom farce “Romance” at the Atlantic concerns ethnic and religious friction, featuring a mudslinging match between a Jew and a Christian;

  • At Dodger Stages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and token Jew Abraham make up a Christian boy band in “Altar Boyz,” who save souls as they get down for God.

The sudden omnipresence of God, and his often errant flock, on New York stages could be a kneejerk reaction to the weight of religious concerns in the November election.

It’s also significant, however, that these plays are appearing a year after the seismic impact of “The Passion of the Christ” — and just as that $370 million-grossing behemoth hits theaters in a recut reissue. But while religion in films has been largely confined to Mel Gibson’s biblical literal-mindedness or to the Satanic spookhouse antics of popcorn pics like “Constantine,” with little in-between ground, playwrights are examining God-related issues from multiple perspectives. These range from good-natured satire to provocative sacreligiousness to serious questioning of established beliefs.

And it’s not just Christianity coming under scrutiny. Questions of faith, observance and what it means to be a Jew are a fundamental part of plays like Donald Margulies’ “Brooklyn Boy” and Daniel Goldfarb’s “Modern Orthodox.”

“Good plays, to a certain extent, reflect the times in which we live,” says Atlantic Theater a.d. Neil Pepe, who directed Mamet’s “Romance.” “A lot of specific religious issues are now front and center.”

The religious trend in theater mirrors TV, where spiritual shows such as “Joan of Arcadia” and “Carnivale” have popped up, while the publishing world has seen the religious-themed “Left Behind” series sell briskly.

“Altar Boyz” is a nod to the rise of Christian-themed popular music. Its creators researched real Christian boy bands, such as Plus One. Ken Davenport, a conceiver and producer, says the show is intended as an homage, a satire or both, depending on your point of view. “It’s kind of like a celebration of that (trend), which exposes the things that are comic about it,” he says.Across popular culture, religion often is a jumping-off point to discuss broader issues. Unlike last fall’s “Sin: A Cardinal Deposed,” “Doubt” is less about pedophilia scandals in the church than about moral uncertainty in a culture that leans heavily toward absolutes.

“Doubt is viewed as weakness, and it was once the province of the wise,” Shanley says. “Everybody is walking around, certainly in the media, with enormous convictions. If Confucius appeared on the Chris Matthews ‘Hardball’ show, he’d be a bad guest.”

The play is also meant to evoke another current subject, says Shanley: the treatment of women in the Muslim world.

“The nuns, they’re dressed in burkas,” Shanley adds. “They’re segregated from the men and they’re in a subservient role. The main character must get the approval of men to do what she thinks is right, or behave in an oblique and possibly duplicitous manner.”

One of the New York theater scene’s most revealing barometers of shifting cultural trends, the Public, has turned into a virtual catechism school, with French scribe Jean-Claude Carriere’s “The Controversy of Valladolid” joining Guirgis’ “Judas” on the theater’s stages.

Spirituality figured significantly in Guirgis’ earlier plays “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street.” But in “Judas Iscariot,” the playwright analyzes big questions pertaining to human and divine love, to guilt and forgiveness, challenging popular belief in a courtroom drama that argues against the eternal damnation of the title character.

“People are writing about spirituality now because it’s part of the collective subconscious,” Guirgis says. “Reflecting on the spiritual is always a positive thing.

“At least in terms of Christianity, I think religion has been appropriated by the conservative right wing of this country,” he adds. “It’s not always popular to call yourself a Christian these days, but there are a lot of Christian people who are progressive, liberal thinkers. A lot of people like myself and Shanley grew up in a Catholic environment but didn’t stay in it.”Carriere’s “Valladolid,” translated by playwright Richard Nelson — looks at the Catholic Church in 16th century Spain. Again set in a tribunal, the drama blasts the church for its policies on slavery.

While religion in popular culture often has been a commercial turnoff, these plays generally are selling tickets.

“Doubt” had a sellout run Off Broadway, while both “Judas Iscariot” and “Romance” announced season extensions due to strong sales while still in previews. “Altar Boyz” has had an attendance percentage “in the 90s,” according to Davenport.

“We have a line in the show where it says the old guy, meaning God, is having a comeback,” says Davenport. “People are demanding more God in their entertainment.”

(Zachary Pincus-Roth contributed to this report.)

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