'Heresy' Review: The Gospel According to A.R. Gurney

This undated theater image released by Spin Cycle shows, from left, Steve Mellor, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey and Annette O’T
This undated theater image released by Spin Cycle shows, from left, Steve Mellor, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey and Annette O’Toole, in a scene from A.R. Gurney’s new play, "Heresy," currently performing off-Broadway at The Flea Theater in New York. (AP Photo/Spin Cycle, Hunter Canning)

Certainly there is plenty about 21st-century American culture and politics to lampoon. In his new play Heresy, at the Flea Theater, A.R. Gurney has taken aim with a modern-day parody of the biblical story of Jesus Christ, but he never quite hits the bull's-eye.

What emerges is a sort of Gospel According to Gurney that is only occasionally funny and seldom insightful. At its best, Heresy produces a few chuckles; at its worst, it is rather silly.
The theological question behind the play would seem to be a variation on the age-old debate topic: What would happen if Christ returned to earth today? The traditional answer is that we would crucify Him again. Gurney might add, only after we had finished shopping.

The play is set in a local National Guard office at a time in the not distant future. Joe and Mary have come to plead with Pontius, a top officer, for the release of their son Chris, who has been arrested and is being held in a Homeland Security cell. As it turns out, Joe and Pontius, or Ponty as he was known before he rose to a position of power, once served in the Guard together and they and their wives used to play bridge. When Phyllis, Ponty's wife, arrives, all four catch up on each other's families.

Chris, who helps Joe in his carpentry shop while going to college, has been causing trouble at school. He keeps making speeches, condemning American consumerism for starters, which has made him a target for shoppers, among others. There is still the question of why Chris was arrested in the first place and who turned him in. Enter Pedro.

Actually, it's Pedro Mahoney, a classmate of Chris's and his best friend. Pedro admits it was he who ratted on Chris (there is no Jude in the play) and denied to the arresting officers that he even knew Chris. Three times. Pedro insists he did it for Chris's own good. The last biblical double in the cast is Lena (it's really Magdalene, but she's shortened it for business reasons), a prostitute who says she was Chris's lover and has come to intervene on his behalf.

Heresy is basically a political spoof in the guise of a parable. One problem is that Gurney seems to have worked from a checklist of social ills he wanted to address, then forced the dialogue in their direction. In the process, he imposes his own views onto the stand-ins for the biblical characters, even to the point of quoting Chris's position on certain theological issues about which Jesus never spoke.

When Lena makes her claim of having a sexual liaison with Chris, for example, Mary blurts out that is impossible because Chris is gay. That leads to a brief exchange on the subject of Christian attitudes toward homosexuality. There are other digressions on topics such as abortion, birth control, and the place of women in the church. Gurney even mentions Islam, but does not pursue that line of inquiry.

All the while, an aide to Pontius named Mark sits at the side of the stage typing out Chris's unfolding story on a laptop, occasionally suggesting some different wording to make the narrative sound, well, more biblical.

Part of the problem with Heresy is a cast that under Jim Simpson's direction seems to be playing caricature rather than characters. As a result, the play never really comes to life as a story of its own, but remains in the realm of a sketch that doesn't take itself seriously. There are exceptions. Steve Mellor delivers a credible Joseph, who wants Chris freed so he can come back to work as a carpenter, and Kathy Najimy is believable as Phyllis, a tippling philistine who is not ashamed to say she still loves to shop.