OK, first things first: There were a handful of Catholic protesters outside the opening L.A. performance of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi.” They looked straight out of central casting — a jacket and tie for the only man, dresses for the ladies — and held signs that said “Stop Catholic Bashing” and other slogans. Their presence reminded everyone at the theater that this play, which spurred threats of violence on the one hand and accusations of censorship on the other when it premiered in New York in 1998, bore the brand of “controversial,” depicting as it does the story of Christ re-envisioned as a gay coming-of-age tale set in 1950s Texas. In this production, directed by Kristin Hanggi (“Bare”), the biblical elements feel an awful lot truer than the Texas ones. Maybe there should have been Lone Star State protesters outside instead.
McNally borrows the self-conscious theatricality of medieval passion plays to tell this contemporized gospel. “Corpus Christi” begins with a ritualized “christening” of the actors into their primary roles. The ensemble of 13 young men thus strip to their skivvies before dressing as their characters.
For the first 15 minutes or so, the piece comes across as a variation on rather crass gay theater, kind of a “Naked Boys Baptizing.” Hanggi and the cast handle it with class, though, managing right from the start to create an atmosphere of intimate camaraderie among the players that’s an essential aspect of telling us this particularly story.
Nicholas Downs plays the Jesus role, called Joshua, and the young actor brings to it just the right genuine gentleness. Joshua watches with a keen eye as his birth and early part of his life play out before him, before beginning to portray the son of God as a boy at a Catholic school, taking singing lessons and ballroom dance lessons and being very bad at sports. The play begins to settle into longer scenes once he hits high school, and there’s a long prom scene where Joshua gets to know his best buddy-to-be Judas (Aaron Lohr), who gives him his first kiss after rescuing him from a potential gay-bashing.
The remainder of the play works out in fairly broad strokes, although McNally manages to do two things simultaneously: make the gospel accessible in contemporary terms and use it as a criticism of a society that still needs to learn the lesson of loving its neighbors.
But doing these things, alas, is not necessarily the same thing as doing them well. It’s not that McNally does them badly, necessarily; it’s just that “Corpus Christi” never takes off — his interpretation of the events feels bland, occasionally clever but not especially imaginative or meaningful. McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!,” “Master Class”), among today’s most successful commercial playwrights, is capable of many things, especially detailing double-edged relationships, but for some reason the Jesus-Judas pairing never comes to life in this play — the most dramatic moments seem the most rote.
That this show drones a bit is not the fault of the production’s young director, Hanggi; she has cast this staging without a weak link and invested the bareness of the presentation with energy and flow and grace, including some lovely movement interludes choreographed by Brian-Paul Mendoza and scored by Damon Intrabartolo. There’s an all-around professionalism that’s impressive indeed. Perhaps she hasn’t trusted enough in the simplicity of the story, however; some of her staging is busy to the point of distraction.
Hanggi also has misgauged the play’s 1950s Texas milieu, at times ignoring it, at others oversizing it. McNally grew up in Corpus Christi in the ’50s, and while there’s a lot of cornball comedy in the scenes, this setting should still be taken as a real place and a real time. The peripheral characters, though, are played as such overblown stereotypes that they’re just too easy to dismiss — a situation severely worsened by the one design element that’s problematic: Danielle Bray’s costumes.
In the original production, as noted in the script, the actors dressed in khakis and white shirts; here, just about everyone’s in jeans, Joshua is wearing a “God Bless Texas” shirt, and there are lots of bandanas hanging around. This play doesn’t need another level of self-conscious hokiness. Hanggi may be trying to make this even more relevant, given the current occupant of the White House, but she unwittingly distances it from our own community — it’s not we who continue to persecute those who are different, this production implies, but those darn Texans.
It’s hard to blame a play based on the Bible for being preachy, but this all sounds a bit too much like a Gray Davis campaign for my taste.