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Review - Heresy

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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 (The very amusing Najimy has already left the play to take some television work, and has been replaced by Karen Ziemba.)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.

Josh is autistic and while his degree of autism may differ from that of others, playwright Deanna Jent has based her beautiful, heartbreaking, complex and desperately hopeful drama, Falling, on her experiences with her own autistic son.

Daniel Everidge, the actor who gives an outstanding performance as Josh, balancing the character's pathos and unintentional menace, is an imposingly large and tall man who scoots about with a stiffened upper body and blurts out responses to questions in short sentences. He can seem like a gentle angel when relaxed on the sofa watching his Jungle Book DVD until he starts masturbating to it. Common noises like the blender running or a dog barking outside scare him into a panic and throughout the evening Everidge realistically keeps the audience braced for any unexpected reaction.

Jent says that Falling is abouT Loving someone who is difficult to love. Bearing the brunt of that difficulty is Josh's mother Tami, rivetingly played by Julia Murney with a desperately weary cheerfulness. Murney has made a career of giving excellent acting performances in musicals and while Falling doesn't require her to sing, what makes her characterization so tragic is that Tami is continually required to give a performance for her son; making a happy game out of each everyday situation in order to keep Josh under control and quickly improvising to counter any resistance without scaring him into violent outbursts.

In many ways, Tami reacts like a victim of domestic abuse; turning to alcohol for quick comfort and being the first to defend her attacker when others fear for her safety. Her obligation to love and protect her son outweighs any concern for herself and she rejects any intimacy with her husband, Bill (Daniel Pearce), who has also learned the routines of entertaining Josh in order to get through the day. Their teenage daughter, Lisa (Jacey Powers), has given up trying to deal with her brother, afraid of his strength and resentful for being deprived of a normal childhood.

There's no plot in Falling; just a finely detailed portrait of this family's life played in ninety thoroughly intriguing, sometimes shocking, minutes. What stands out about director Lori Adams' subtle production is how the family members see the intricate system of code words and distractions they've developed to help handle Josh as just a normal part of everyday living. They've been at this for so long that, instead of immediacy, we get the emotionless daily routine. This is especially apparent after Bill manages to pacify his son and diffuse an attack on Tami. It may seem like he doesn't do enough to comfort her once the immediate threat is calmed, but most likely this has happened enough times that she has made it clear to him what she needs when this happens.

The play is set on a day when Bill's mother, Grammy Sue (Celia Howard), comes for one of her infrequent visits. Never having seen the fully-grown Josh in action, the character becomes the audience's eyes and ears, taking in the experience for the first time and becoming a sounding board for Tami, Bill and Lisa to talk about home life issues and express their feelings. Eventually, the playwright introduces a situation that allows them to think of how much happier they would be if Josh was no longer there; a thought that's painful to consider, but understandable nevertheless.

Grammy Sue is established as someone who believes that prayer and the church can solve any problem, but Howard does a fine job in showing her gradual understanding of the situation's complexities. Pearce's Bill is determined to be a good father and husband, despite the fact that he receives little joy from family life and although Lisa has detached herself from any relationship with her brother, Powers keeps the character sympathetic as she yearns for a reasonable amount of parental attention.

With two memorable central performances, a very strong supporting cast and a script that earns every tear it jerks from you, Falling is one of the finest theatrical products currently offered in New York.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Daniel Everidge and Julia Murney; Bottom: Daniel Pearce, Celia Howard, Daniel Everidge, Jacey Powers and Julia Murney.

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