Review - Heresy

Stephen Sondheim's "Uptown, Downtown," that axed-from-Follies number about a woman who splits her personality between Schlitz and The Ritz, might well apply to the most recent plays of A.R. Gurney.

Uptown, in front of Primary Stages audiences at 59E59, Gurney presents civilized comedies drawn from his WASPy Buffalo upbringing. But downtown at the Flea Theatre, he flicks satirical darts via near-futuristic fantasies.

There's no great mystery as to where the playwright is headed in Heresy, his latest Flea offering, as soon as it's revealed that parents named Mary and Joseph are trying to find out why their son Chris was arrested by Homeland Security.

The patient carpenter (Steve Mellor) and his take-charge wife (Annette O'Toole) arrive in a comfortably dignified setting known as the Liberty Lounge to try and get some information from the local prefect, who is also an old buddy named... Well, let's just say his nickname back in the day was Ponty (Reg E. Cathey). Also along is Ponty's boozy socialite wife, Phyllis (Kathy Najimy), a character you might consider an illegal alien who has crossed the 14th Street border from one of Gurney's uptown plays. (The very amusing Najimy has already left the play to take some television work, and has been replaced by Karen Ziemba.)

Taking notes of the meeting is a young, efficient orderly named Mark (Tommy Crawford), freely adapting what he sees and hears into his own story-telling style. Eventually we meet Pedro (Danny Rivera) and Lena (Ariel Woodiwiss), whose relationships with the never-seen Chris draw the expected parallels.

There are enough funny lines in the script and clever moments in director Jim Simpson's production to carry us to the thinly sliced meat of the matter; that Chris was videoed preaching some radical notions and it went viral on the internet, prompting a need to hide him someplace, as they say, for his own safety.

Fortunately, Gurney doesn't slam us too severely with his message and the 80-minute piece comes off like an extended post-Weekend Update SNL sketch. But the cast seems to be having a fun time with it and audiences who enjoy their mindless fun mixed with a bit of cautionary tale can do likewise.

Photos by Hunter Canning: Top: Reg E. Cathey, Annette O'Toole and Danny Rivera; Bottom: Steve Mellor, Kathy Najimy and Reg E. Cathey.

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When 18-year-old Josh pulls the string hanging from a box propped up on a shelf in his family's living room, he gets showered with dozens of soft white feathers. The mile-wide smile and limitlessly joyful expression on his face, and the happy tingle you can imagine must be tickling his body all over, tells you that playing with this homemade toy is something he does frequently to bring him comfort and momentary, completely innocent happiness.

And when Josh nearly chokes the life out of his mother, easily lifting her from the ground in his powerful arms and effortlessly dragging her across the room, it's also something he has done before, though not as frequently. The frightened expression on his face tells you he is defending himself against something he can't comprehend, but as soon as he can be distracted with a puzzle or his beloved marbles, all fear is gone and his attention is focused on a new activity while his mother tries regaining her breath and puts her hands on the places where the new bruises will show up.


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