Now in a limited Off-Broadway run through Nov. 4 at the Flea Theater, A. R. Gurney’s new one-act Heresy boasts a goodly share of the playwright’s characteristic idea-wrangling and cutting humor, here centered on the police-state elements introduced into the U.S. after 9-11. The insular plot, a deliberately un-subtle allegory of the Christ story, concerns a young man we never meet named Chris who has been abducted into protective custody after his college roommate Pedro (a winning Danny Rivera), meaning well, has denounced him for exercising with dangerous abandon his right to free speech. The not-so-big question driving the tale is whether the dictatorial Prefect Pontius, played by a droll Reg E. Cathey (The Wire), will bend to Chris’s parents’ entreaties to release him, or leave him incommunicado in custody.
As recounted by his contemporaries – Pedro, along with prostitute-girlfriend Lena (short for…you guessed it, played brashly by Ariel Woodiwiss), Chris has made a habit of railing, Christ-like, against consumerism, the deceptive “American dream,” and other ills of modern society. These issues aren’t very closely tied to the excesses of the war-on-terror era, so in this way the play doesn’t deliver on its setup. In the opening tableau, a screen displays information about repressive-sounding if all-too-realistic measures such as a “New American Web-Based Threat Control Task Force” to a table and chairs in a corporate-style government office while, in bright contrast, celebratory gospel tunes play over the sound system.
The crack cast also includes two-time Obie winner Steve Mellor as Chris’s father Joseph, and Smallville‘s Annette O’Toole as his uptight-liberal mother Mary (“I’ll loosen up plenty when there’s something to feel loose about”); a sharp Tommy Crawford as Mark, the orderly tasked with bringing drinks while crafting a New Testament out of the minutes of the meeting; and, as Pontius’s superficial wife Phyllis, the unfailingly funny Kathy Najimy, who with no apparent effort gets big laughs even out of her blander lines of dialogue and small body movements (her shimmy while joining the rest of the cast in a hymn to aid Pontius’s ponderings is priceless). (Note: Karen Ziemba replaces Ms. Najimy beginning Oct. 19.) For his part, Mr. Cathey’s sometimes surprising comic timing as her husband Pontius, the mini-dictator and ex-National Guard buddy of Joseph’s, presents a neat counterpoint to Ms. Najimy’s comic sparkle.
To a large extent, these people are more caricatures than characters. Mr. Gurney hasn’t written them with the pen of realism, but brought them together to air a set of views entertainingly. At that he has succeeded. It also does not display a consistent vision of near-future technology, jumbling it a bit with that of the present day and even the recent past; in fact it doesn’t feel fully committed to its setting in a general sense. Because of those limitations and a few lapses into bald preachiness, the play can’t, at least in its present form, rise to the level of the playwright’s best work. What is does provide is a consistently amusing and well-played take on the state of the union.