Theater archives

Divine Comedy


Professor Paul Rudnick’s course in Theology 101—Essentials of Human Mythmaking—is by far the most entertaining in our divinity school’s current catalogue, though you may not come out of it as prepared as you might hope to take up a small-town pulpit. The course occupies one evening only, with no exams or papers, and is given in two parts, consisting of biblical time and the present. Professor Rudnick’s survey of Bible history may be disconcerting to those who have gone over similar material with his predecessor, Professor Thornton Wilder. Dr. Wilder located the source of human spiritual development in heterosexual domesticity, an idea that Professor Rudnick discards as altogether improbable. His version, which relies heavily on a keystone Coptic papyrus transliterated by Abbot Costello, draws on today’s almost universally accepted belief that men and women are in fact two different species, products of a separate but equal creation, and sexual intercourse between them should be minimal, practiced solely to achieve cross-breeding.

Professor Rudnick dramatizes these accepted scientific facts through the familiar myth of Adam and Steve, same-sex lovers happy in the Garden of Eden, unaware of the parallel presence of Jane and Mabel in another Edenic enclave until Adam’s questing spirit accidentally brings about the expulsion. Rudnick assigns to women their traditional virtues of practicality and toughness, making them inventors of the lever, the pulley, and the wheel, as well as articulators of that disputable theory called God, which has recently become so fashionable as party chitchat. Man, in Rudnick’s view, invented little except rejection, doubt, cocktail canapés, and “shampoo and conditioner in one”—certainly an impressive record for a creature that is all tremulous sensibility.

Women’s love, though sorely tried by personality clashes, is seen as strong and binding. Threatened by Pharaoh during the captivity in Egypt, Jane and Mabel are steadfast; Adam and Steve, on the other hand, are uncertain and easily distracted. “We’re Godchosen people,” they declare. “We don’t have children. We have taste.” Issues of taste, of course, are eternally divisive: Even as wise men at the Nativity, Adam and Steve quarrel over the choice of gifts. While heterosexual love can’t be what God intended, its same-sex equivalent, for males, seems even iffier.

Rudnick’s second lecture-demonstration traces his topic through contemporary life, when people have learned to produce children without the hypocrisy and inconvenience of hetero marriage. Jane, the tougher of the two women, has been selected; her water breaks during a holiday party at Adam and Steve’s, while she and Mabel are exchanging vows before a disabled lesbian rabbi. Rudnick has a gleeful time examining the pain and messiness of the birth process, especially its repugnant effect on the more sensitive males.

In this section, he expands the circle around his two couples to include, besides the rabbi, an embittered old-family WASP, a go-go boy, and a wide-eyed Mormon girl newly arrived in the big city, who is the target of the other characters’ most acrimonious wisecracks. When she asks if her presence at a lesbian wedding will condemn her to hell, the WASP replies, “Would you rather have a roomful of homosexuals talk about you after you’ve gone?” She stays, acknowledging that, in postmodern theology, hell is far from the worst punishment imaginable. Another, which Rudnick sees as a kind of non-metaphoric expulsion from the garden of love, is HIV. At the end it decisively alters Adam and Steve’s relationship—revealing, in effect, that what underlies Rudnick’s elaborate biblical rethinking is a hidden debate on the relative values of monogamy and promiscuity.

The secret theme is accompanied by a structural joke: The Adam of Rudnick’s second half, a private-school teacher, has just staged a re-gendered Bible pageant with his students—of which the first half’s biblical survey is an adult equivalent. Since Adam’s spiritual questions lead only to more questions, the effective moral is: Stop asking questions about the invisible and accept things as they are. Especially since, when challenged to name a religion that doesn’t brutalize women and gays, the only one the characters can think of is “Oprah.”

As can be inferred, Professor Rudnick’s exposition is stronger on diversion than on substance, though the jokes cloak enough intelligence to justify even the most dour-minded student’s enrollment in his course. The dioramas, under the direction of Rudnick’s longtime lab supervisor, the ingenious Christopher Ashley, are fetching in the usual silly way. The teaching assistants who enact these parables include, most appealingly, Peter Bartlett, whose innate affinity for Rudnick’s style is an ongoing marvel. Kathryn Meisle, Alan Tudyk, Lisa Kron, and Joanna P. Adler are all charming, while Becky Ann Baker, called on to represent the agonies of birth, is nothing short of awesome.

A kind of counter-demonstration of the clarity that produces Rudnick’s humor is offered by Amy Freed’s Freedomland, the work of a young writer who hasn’t yet found a focus for her inventiveness. The play is another weekend with the dysfunctional American family, ’90s style. Dad, blissed-out since the ’60s, natters about the end of the world; stepmom keeps busy seducing his daughters’ boyfriends; walking-wounded daughter A makes big bucks as a painter, while sheltering and bossing directionless daughter B; son and his wife preach back-to-the-land fundamentalism and blow things up.

Some of this is funny, but Freed’s shakiness with exposition keeps shoving untenable questions at you: Why would an artist schlepp a critic from a prestigious magazine upstate to meet her wacko family? Why does a nut who obsesses on big government and corporate interference blow up a Quaker meetinghouse? Kept in constant but uncogent motion by Howard Shalwitz’s staging, Freedomland suffers from the dramaturgic equivalent of a slipped disc, with a new stabbing pain in its coherence every few minutes. Still, it has good points: In addition to Freed’s fresh sounds, there’s a magical set by Loy Arcenas, suitably giddy costumes by Candace Donnelly, plus a largely likable cast, headed by Veanne Cox, forceful and touchingly vulnerable as the artist-daughter. Heather Goldenhersh, Robin Strasser, Carrie Preston, and Jeffrey Donovan do well with the predictable eccentricities they’re assigned, and Jeff Whitty does even better with the thoroughly untrackable role of the critic.

The talk is crisper in Jim Luigs’s Spread Eagle, a work of perplexingly mixed motives. Based on the murder some years ago, in the Dominican Republic, of the beloved comic actor George Rose, it comes shadowed by a nasty aura of exploitation, which Luigs then mercifully but inexplicably eschews. His hero is as far from Rose as is humanly imaginable. The first half is British backstage comedy, clipped and funny, in which an overweening London superstar goes to Mexico for a rest, and finds himself purchasing a villa, along with the favors of its houseboy. In the second, even less probable half, he becomes infatuated with the artistic potential of the houseboy’s younger cousin, and Luigs turns the play into what is surely the most arcane lecture to date on capitalism’s abuse of the Third World. Under Constance Grappo’s smooth direction, Brian Murray carves up the lead role with meaty gusto; he gets good help from Patricia Kilgarriff as his best female backstage buddy, and from Matthew Saldivar and Joe Quintero as houseboy and his rival. But Spread Eagle still belongs on the increasing list of events so dislocated from any purpose that they’re starting to make the theater look like a Lost & Found department.