There’s a Yiddish expression for things Gentiles love that Jews can’t fathom: goyim naches (literally “Gentile joy”). It encompasses—or used to in less assimilated days—phenomena like golf, fruitcake at Christmastime, and (as cited in Mamet’s current Romance) cheese sandwiches. It also includes one theatrical genre, produced by Christianity’s Catholic subdivision: the musical that makes affectionate fun of the religious life and the whole process of salvation, as if these things were the antics of puppies or adorable children. Even vociferous Catholic dogmatists who regard satirical works by lapsed Catholics, like Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius and McNally’s Corpus Christi, as anathema seem to have no problem with Nunsense and its endless sequels. Raising deep questions about the faith through satire may be a big no-no, but spoofing it cutely in light entertainment is apparently OK.
The new pocket musical Altar Boyz, which might be described as the male teen version of Nunsense, walks the wobbly line between permissible spoof and its verboten twin, satire. A simultaneous parody of boybands and of the G-rated pop-rock entertainment that’s meant to raise morals and save souls, the show is visibly a huge piece of quasi-gay camp, only its tongue is kept so firmly away from its cheek that you wonder if the authors aren’t really being serious. When the group’s nelly choreographer “comes out” as a . . . Catholic, it’s impossible to tell whom the joke is meant to be on. Denial could hardly run deeper. In their various ways, the five performers are all cute (the only reasonable adjective in this context). The whole thing has been slickly staged by Stafford Arima, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography has a notably witty way of putting all the standard pop-group moves in comically nonstandard places, especially in a number with puppet lambs. The only real question involved is how funny—or how serious—you think it is to hear five cute boys singing “Jesus Called Me on My Cell Phone” and suchlike. I suppose it’s a show to which ex-Catholic yuppies can take their hard-line parents from out of town, without either party getting angry. Better not tell the parents it’s a spoof.