My first play in high school was a production of A. R. Gurney's The Dining Room, in which I learned to identify a pistol-handled knife and got to yell the phrase "anthropological balls." This experience, combined with my enjoyment of more well-known Gurney plays such as The Cocktail Hour and Sylvia, meant that the opportunity to review Gurney's latest play Heresy was one I couldn't ignore. Perhaps my expectations were a bit too high, but the talented folks at The Flea Theater couldn't entirely save this clever concept for a show from what struck me as unfortunately simplistic writing.
Let me backtrack for a second. First of all, the fact that this show was at The Flea was another draw for me. From Future Anxiety to She Kills Monsters to These Seven Sicknesses, I always look forward to their creativity and theatrical imagination. Upon entering the space, I was immediately intrigued. Every time I go into The Flea it looks like a whole new theatre, and this was no exception.
It is immediately obvious that the play will take place in a very "American" political office. Soon we are introduced to Mary (Annette O'Toole) and Joseph (Steve Mellor) who are trying to locate their incarcerated son. They have come to this office to meet with the Prefect Pontius (Reg. E. Cathey), who Joseph and Mary know from when they were younger. The play goes through the philosophical issues that have landed the couple's son in jail, which range from religious to political to social.
The play's seemingly allegorical structure is a smart concept, though its execution is not as inspired. Despite great direction by Jim Simpson, and strong performances by the cast, the characters fall flat. This seems to be due to the fact that they are neither entirely allegorical nor entirely individual, but exist somewhere in between.
This indecision about where the play lives stylistically is not necessarily problematic. In other words, I think a genre identity crisis can be magnificent to watch, and I'm not trying to fault the play for being difficult to categorize. Instead, I felt that the characters are given a great deal of emotions without having any sort of journey. O'Toole's Mary, for example, is wound up tight from beginning to end, which must be emotionally exhausting for O'Toole herself, but was difficult to connect to as an audience member. And Kathy Najimy, whose comic timing is always so excellent, was given a character who is set up for too many laughs for my taste. Najimy is a talented actress, and I would have preferred letting her find the comedy rather than being forced to say punchline after punchline.
I am holding this play to higher standard because of the clever way I know Gurney is capable of writing. Perhaps this piece is meant more as a philosophical cry for attention and information than a piece of entertainment. Yet here again I found that there was very little I found heretical about Heresy. Granted, a great many people could find certain claims about religion and politics expressed in Heresy deeply offensive, but to a downtown theatre audience there is really nothing new here.
Having said this, I do want to say that my friend was completely engaged and enjoyed the play more than I did. This friend is also a doctoral student in Theatre, and someone who also has an extensive history of making, watching, and thinking about theatre. When asked to articulate her experience, she said that she was excited to hear her own thoughts about consumerism, religion, and other topics put up on stage. This is a valid point, and I point it out here to say that something need not be original to be exciting to hear and see in the theatre, as well as to point out my own specific preoccupations with the play's style were not universal.
And I do agree with much of what was said in Heresy, but the simplistic structure and blatant allegory rubbed me the wrong way entirely. An allegory is an invitation from the playwright and cast to the audience to collaborate with them in the process of making meaning. As is, this play is too straightforward to require too much thinking on the audience's part, in my opinion. I waited for things to become more complicated, but I was ultimately disappointed. I do hope that Gurney goes back and does a rewrite, because I'd really like to see this same concept expressed a different way.
Of course, if you haven't spent a great deal of time thinking about the problems of consumerism, religion, and governmental control, then this is fantastic way to become familiar with these issues. As I can tell from my friend's experience, there is certainly something in Heresy for some people, and despite my lackluster feelings about the piece, I will continue to consider myself a fan of Gurney and The Flea.