“Satire,” as George S. Kaufman once famously said, “is what closes Saturday night.” Though written in jest, it has served as an admonition for playwrights in pursuit of satire.
In this age of political unrest, where sharp satire of our cultural differences is not only necessary but essential (and hardly forthcoming), we crave satire that goes even further than where television’s political comedians – Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher – have taken us. But as David Mamet’s November has already proven on this matter, we need a point of view from someone who has done more than watch the same television shows we all watch. As much respect as A. R. Gurney — one of our most prolific playwrights — deserves for his body of work, he has attempted in his new play, Heresy, to ridicule the sound bites of our times and plunge into a cogent satire of the way our pundits define this cultural climate. It’s hard to disagree with what he has to say, but he doesn’t seem eager enough to build beyond the obvious.
The reason may be that he has hung his comedy on the notion of what would happen if Jesus were alive today in our consumerist society. Indeed, what would Jesus do? And what would we do to Jesus? Come on, now. We can guess that much in three minutes.
A couple named Mary and Joseph come to the aid of their old pal, Ponty Pilate, who is now prefect of some futuristic society that looks uncomfortably like our own. Their son Chris, who has been arrested for his rebellious behavior, has his defenders: mainly his classmate Pedro (I guess he wasn’t called Judas so he could be representative of Hispanic culture) and his libidinous girlfriend, Lena (short for Magdalena). Rather than amuse us with his story, Gurney merely adds to our disconnect from the views he aims to express.
And Jim Simpson has directed at such a marathon pace that his actors seem to be on a mad dash for the exit doors almost as soon as they make their entrances. But talking fast doesn’t stop the audience from feeling as if they’ve heard it all before. If some teeth were displayed — either in the writing or the direction — we might expect some bite, but all we’re given is speed.
The evidence that it could have been much different consists of two actors who choose character over a mere rush to chatter; and so in their cases, the zingers, be they fresh or stale, land on target rather than with a thud. The two are Tommy Crawford as Mark, a young orderly who serves the cocktails and keeps the notes (you know, the Gospel According To…), and whose insistent smiling geniality says much about the masks we wear; and especially Kathy Najimy as Pilate’s wife, who drinks her way through the proceedings, turning her drunkenness into the very state of casual indifference that may be at the heart of Gurney’s satiric intentions. The glaze in Ms. Najimy’s eyes, as the world around her goes out of focus, tells it all.
NOTE: On October 19, Kathy Najimy will be replaced by Karen Ziemba.
The Flea Theater in New York City
scheduled to end on November 4, 2012
for tickets, call (212) 226-2407 or visit http://www.theflea.org/