Protests hotter than play's reviews Controversy: Demonstrators say Terrence McNally's 'Corpus Christi' is blasphemous

theater critics call it bland.

October 21, 1998|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

What would happen if Jesus Christ had been born a gay man in Corpus Christi, Texas, during the 1960s?

A new play that tries to answer that question has touched off the latest salvo in what has been dubbed the "culture wars" between liberal and conservative advocates.

But unlike earlier controversies, which most often occurred in relatively out-of-the-way venues or provincial cities, last week's shot was in New York, the culture capital of the country, where playwright Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi" opened amid street protests, heightened security and -- given all the hoopla -- surprisingly lukewarm reviews.

A retelling of the gospels in which a Jesus-like character named Joshua and his 12 disciples are gay men who preach their message of peace and love in Corpus Christi (McNally's hometown), the play has been attacked as blasphemy by conservative Christian groups.

"This is a piece of filth," said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which organized the protest. "Terrence McNally is the David Duke and the Khalil Muhammad of Broadway."

On opening night, a reported 2,000 demonstrators gathered outside the theater to protest the play's characterization of Jesus and his disciples as homosexuals.

A counterdemonstration led by free-speech advocate Norman Lear of the People for the American Way the same evening drew a smaller crowd of about 200.

"It is easy to allow free speech when we agree with what is being said," said People for the American Way vice president Barbara Handman in a statement. "The hard thing is to allow free speech for that which offends us."

Donohue, who denied his organization advocated censorship, said the demonstrations represented several dozen conservative religious groups that were troubled by McNally's portrayal of the Christ story.

"We were there to register our moral outrage," he insisted. "We consider what McNally is doing to be a form of hate speech."

But unlike Donohue, most of those demonstrating in the street outside the theater had not actually seen McNally's play -- and probably won't, because publicity from the controversy has resulted in sold-out performances every night of its planned 10-week run.

Perhaps it is doubly ironic that a play that sparked such heated feelings before it even opened has turned out to be a rather bland, predictable appeal for love, peace and understanding. All of these certainly were part of what the 1960s were about, but like so many themes of the era, these are ideas that by their nature probably are more suited to polemical than to theatrical expression.

Indeed, opening night proved a letdown to most of the city's critics and many in the audience at the Manhattan Theater Club, which produced "Corpus Christi."

"Corpus Christi" is hardly blistering satire of any sort, much less a festival of 'Catholic bashing,' " wrote the New York Times' critic. "As a piece of baldfaced impiety, the Monty Python movie 'The Life of Brian' outstrips it by miles."

Several reviewers noted that the actors who play Joshua and his disciples seem almost to go out of their way to appear non-threatening and nice, as if they were just a bunch of college kids acting up at a fraternity bash.

"We hope our story doesn't offend you," one of Joshua's disciples implores the audience.

The piece, performed on a minimalist set by 13 male actors, recounts the familiar highlights of the Christ story -- the nativity, the temptation in the desert, the performing of miracles, the Last Supper and the crucifixion.

Some of the actors play multiple roles -- the same actor who plays the disciple Thomas, for example, also plays a nun and a female classmate of Joshua's at Corpus Christi High School.

Other disciples double as Joshua's parents, Mary and Joseph, his high school gym teacher, and a trio of schoolyard bullies who torment the young man caught in the throes of discovering his different sexual orientation.

The play, which lasts about two hours and is performed without intermission, has its moments of adolescent humor, mostly harmless and hardly shocking -- as when Joshua and his disciples mime urinating in a men's room to the accompaniment of piped-in sounds of gurgling water.

There are also a few scenes of men kissing each other, hugging one another and otherwise openly displaying physical affection.

But contrary to advance reports, the play contains no nudity or graphic sexual scenes, and even the occasional foul language is nothing one wouldn't expect to hear at the local multiplex.

"Corpus Christi" is no clarion call to revolutionary transformation -- political, social or sexual. But the religious conservatives who are most opposed to the play aren't mollified.

"What offends most people is the idea of Jesus Christ portrayed as a homosexual," says Richard Montalto, an active member of the Catholic League in Baltimore who helped organize a local letter-writing campaign against the play.

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