As Proposition 8’s fallout widens the chasm between believers in a certain brand of religiosity and proponents of same-sex equality, there’s comfort to be found in Keith Bunin’s “The Busy World Is Hushed,” a rational, respectful exploration of the solace faith can offer the grieving of whatever persuasion. Equal cognizance of faith’s limitations makes for a most stimulating dialectic, though the Meta Theater production (L.A.’s first staging) proves inadequate to the play’s more visceral demands.
Episcopal minister Hannah (Judy Jean Berns), a scholar of early Christianity, hires a research assistant-ghost writer to turn her analysis of a newly discovered Gospel into readable prose. Though lacking credentials or any core of belief, Brandt (Josh Mann) is drawn to the crusty, reflexively compassionate academic, who may offer respite from his father’s lingering illness and an antidote to his own spiritual sterility.
Hannah’s ulterior motive centers on son Thomas (Robert Hardin), whose skepticism dwarfs the doubting of his Biblical namesake. Terrified of his careless promiscuity and wilderness disappearing acts (somehow tied into his dad’s mysterious drowning years before), Hannah hopes the clearly needy and easy-on-the-eyes Brandt will give her breezy boy incentive to nurture the roots he keeps cutting away.
The trio debate God’s purpose and Jesus’ divinity with incisive intelligence in helmer-designer Richard Kilroy’s inviting, carefully detailed study. Since no one need raise his voice in the intimate Meta space, the first act feels remarkably like eavesdropping on smart, sensitive people in real life and real time.
However, only one-third of the cast rises to the challenge once the emotional stakes are raised. Thomas’ vehement rejection of Hannah because of her calling, not especially well executed by Bunin, would feel both pat and forced even if Hardin were projecting a proper level of biting rage, which he isn’t. Meanwhile, Mann shows no interest in trying to laugh off or disguise Brandt’s miseries; lines clearly intended to lighten the mood receive a predictably self-pitying reading.
Factor in the total lack of sexual heat between the men and you have a recipe for a long, disappointing second act brightened only by Berns’ consistent clarity and emotional precision. She portrays Hannah as a born teacher, one who tosses out facts and challenges not to pontificate but to draw out the sharpest thinking from her listeners. Yet we never lose sight of the feeling mom co-existing with the thoughtful inquisitor.
Her son may disagree, but for us it’s a pleasure to spend time in her company.