New Conservatory Theater Center, which arguably has usurped pioneering Theater Rhinoceros’ place as San Francisco’s leading gay stage, scored a coup in commissioning a world premiere work from Terrence McNally. But the resulting “Crucifixion” — which the playwright’s own program notes call very much an in-progress work — is at this stage a garish goulash of hot-button themes, bitch quips and crude sexploitation that’s never sillier than when at its most self-consciously serious. The question is whether this contrived mishmash has a soul worth saving.
Theatergoers who bought the flaming passions of “The Lisbon Traviata” as credible gay drama might answer yes. Those who found it somewhat hysterical, however, will be truly nonplussed by a more “experimental” piece that sprawls across the country, several years, and myriad fourth-wall-breakages, yet never seems to leave an artificial zone where everyone acts/sounds like attendees at a Broadway musical cast party with a too-open bar.
The women are all drag-queen bitchy — but then so are the men. Even the sole heterosexual here admits she had “almost-lesbian college days,” and talks about her subsequent carnal activities like a latterday Sophie Tucker.
But this is a drama wrestling with faith, love and whatnot. After the entire cast comes to the stagefront to introduce themselves and their characters (as well as a dated theater-games tenor that never quite dissipates), we get down to the matter at hand: which is having one man sprawled naked on a Manhattan hotel room floor while another, in full priestly cassock, strangles him to death.
Just how holy hottie Father James (Colin Stuart) came to break a major commandment on obnoxious TV producer Don (Scott Cox) is only explained, none too satisfactorily, about 100 minutes later. The time between is cluttered with a roster of figures whose links to one another are meant to illustrate that “Life is all about connections.”
That’s one of those truisms so vague as to be useless, particularly when the “connections” are as artificial, arbitrary and coincidence-dependent as they usually are here. Still, it’s arguably a better line than several others here: “Things like that happen. People drift apart. It’s human nature,” “Do people change? Can they?” and “People should notice each other more.”
Father Jim, it turns out, is one of three Jesuit priests who graduated seminary at the same time and are all pretty out-and-proud gay. (In this play’s universe it seems unconceivable that non-gay priests might even exist.) His friends Father Tom (Bradford Cooreman) and Father Jackson (Javier Galito-Cava) are long-distance, long-term lovers. Jim hasn’t been so lucky, but develops an attachment to hustler/aspiring-actor Alan (Andrew Nance), even if it’s a paying one.
Alan’s oldest-profession employ is what eventually leads him to crass party animal Don, and Don (who continues loudly protesting for some minutes after he’s been killed) to an easily-goaded Father Jim. In the aftermath, James seeks succor from his priest pals as well as Broadway composer brother John (Paul Araguistain) and public-interest lawyer sis Genevieve (Camilla Bushovetsky), the designated hetero.
Mourning on Don’s side are his business partner Carrie (Cheryl Smith), her pregnant (via Don’s sperm donation) partner Beth (Lizzie Calogero), his campy TV weatherman ex-boyfriend Schuyler (Patrick Michael Dukeman) and latter’s green-card wife Bernadette (Amanda King), who as the only black woman on stage is naturally called upon to softly moan da blues during every sad moment.
All these overcomplicated yet under explored relationships require so much direct-address explication, and explanatory flashbacks, that the sheer clutter of short scenes and cramped actors (most remain on-stage throughout) negates any potential for dullness. Yet there’s no depth or even much logic ruling all these disparate-lives-swept-together-by-fate, rendering the playwright’s chess moves a bit silly, when not outright lurid.
The universality of experience he hopes will dimly shine forth is rather compromised by gay men repeatedly expressing stereotypical horror at female sexuality (John says “Lesbians make me nervous,” while Schuyler tells Bernadette he’s scared of “that big nothing between your legs”), de rigueur opera references, nasty show-biz in-jokes (at the expense of Elaine Stritch and Mary Martin), perfunctory disrobings of the male cast, ka-boom-cha! raunchy one-liners and any other gratuitous thing that came to mind during the play’s two-year development process.
Though no character emerges as more than one-(maybe 1.25) dimensional, perhaps the least convincing is the one that should be most vivid. Father James is meant to be a man of genuine, progressive faith. But despite a couple monologues designed to punch that across, McNally holds religious belief at an exotic distance.
His dumbest notion is to have Jim so turned on by the crucifixion posture (struck by either himself or pliant Alan) that he instantly orgasms. This conceit is granted such cosmic weight that the play actually ends with black woman moanin’ maudlin blues as convicted priestly murderer spasms in the electric chair then rises to strike “martyred” crucifixion pose. Blackout.
Then the cast returns to again individually introduce themselves and their characters, as if completing some sacred ritual to which we should now offer prayerful thanks. The play was written for these particular S.F. actors, but does them no favors.
Given a large cast and hectic script, Ed Decker’s production suffers from the limited space of even NCTC’s largest stage. One could imagine a slicker presentation glossing over some of the play’s current faults, but redeeming it whole may be beyond mortal or heavenly intervention.