Thursday, July 3, 2014

37. Review of THE RELIGION THING (June 29, 2014)


My Jewish daughter was married to a Catholic man. Her daughter has been in a relationship with a Muslim man for five years. My other granddaughter, technically Jewish, has dated only non-Jewish men. My Jewish son is married to a Christian woman of Chinese descent. My Jewish brother-in-law is married to a Baptist. And my family’s no different from those of many other people I (or you) know. Simply stated, in our increasingly diverse society, interfaith, not to mention interracial, relationships are standard operating procedure. American plays have been examining intermarriage situations at least since ABIE’S IRISH ROSE (1922), one of the biggest hits of its time, and only last season Off Broadway saw it treated in HANDLE WITH CARE. And when it comes to movies, who can forget, just to cite just two American classics touching on interfaith marriage, THE WAY WE WERE and ANNIE HALL?

Danielle O'Farrell, Andrew William Smith. Photo: no credit provided.
The subject remains fraught with possibilities, no matter how many plays and movies it inspires, because each relationship has its own context and personalities to make it unique. It can be treated comically or tragically, or, as in Renee Calarco’s THE RELIGION THING, somewhere in between, even though the play is billed as a comedy. Its first act, which plays like a conventional sitcom, has some amusing lines and situations, but before its first scene is over it introduces another major theme entirely. At first,  the play introduces us to issues of religious believe through its depiction of  a marriage between Catholic Mo (Katherine McLeod) and Jewish Brian (Jamie Geiger), as well as to the marriage of  Patti (Danielle O’Farrell) and Jeff (Andrew William Smith), a couple who’ve become born-again Christians.

No problem there, since the opportunities for exploiting the religious thing with this mix of his and her beliefs are abundant, but in short order, Jeff reveals, to his recent bride’s surprise, that he’s a converted homosexual, and a large chunk of the play becomes concerned with the question of whether being gay is a life choice, as Jeff insists, and whether one can simply train oneself to change. From interfaith, one might say, to intersex, except that the latter word has been preempted by an entirely different meaning.  

In THE RELIGIOUS THING Jeff, Patti, and Mo are successful D.C. lawyers, while Brian is a lobbyist. Mo and Brian have invited Patti, Mo’s longtime friend, and Jeff, whom Mo and Brian haven’t previously met, over for snacks and drinks. The evening of small talk, some of it with mildly comic banter about Jewish/Catholic topics, leads to a series of revelations that include news of Patti and Jeff’s marriage and of their new evangelicalism. Patti, a former Catholic and recovering alcoholic—and promiscuous enough to be labeled a member of the Fuck-of-the-Month Club—seems to be going along to make Jeff happy, and—in one of the play’s various hard to swallow notions—has even chosen on his behalf to abandon her career in the employ of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When the subject of homosexuality arises—because it turns out Jeff’s cute boss is gay—Jeff and Mo have a spirited debate about how much control one has over their sexuality, which forces Jeff, in the heat of the moment, to reveal his own past. The moment is funny, if not hilarious, and it provides a suitable opportunity for a blackout. It’s only the end of the first scene, though, and act one lopes along with two more, including a final one in Patti and Jeff’s bedroom. By this time the play’s momentum has slowed down, and when we get to act two, we’re almost in another play, with surrealistic infusions that add little to the dramatic brew. The final resolution of Mo and Brian’s marital dilemma is dramatized in a final scene that had both me and my companion puzzling over its justification, which the preceding action may hint at but doesn’t fully support.

Patti’s discomfort with the possibility that Jeff may be thinking of a man while making love to her becomes a big issue, as does the subject of Mo’s desire to have a child while she’s still able, contrasted with Brian’s ambivalence because of the question of what religion the child should be raised in. Both are suitable dramatic topics but here they tend to get in each other’s way and muddle the atmosphere. Also, given Mo and Brian’s barely honoring their religious heritages (neither has attended services in years), as with so many primarily secular couples today, this preoccupation with their child’s religion seems forced. In my experience, it’s usually the grandparents who get their knickers in a twist over these things, while the couple simply ignores the issue or decides to let the kids choose for themselves. But they don’t forgo having kids just because the question isn’t resolved.  

And then there are act two’s insertions of dream figures to serve as surrogates for inner monologues, with each of the four characters being visited by some figure from their past, including Brian’s grandfather, played as a heavily bearded old Hasid (offensive and unlikely) telling his grandson to raise his son Jewish, or Sister Mary Kevin, Mo’s Catholic school teacher (whose scene is more about her than Mo). All these roles are dully portrayed by Curran Connor, who also plays Steve Glick, a standup comic, in a play-opening scene that, because of its attempt at humor about the Amish custom of Rumspringa,  is only loosely related to what follows and could easily be cut, to the benefit of the play.

The actors are directed by Douglas Hall to play at low-key, naturalistic, conversational levels, perhaps because of the very intimate ambiance at the tiny Cell Theatre, but that, combined with the often dreadfully slow pacing, proves deadly, especially during act two, and the potential fireworks never explode. Even when Jeff makes his fateful revelation, it seems more to slip out than to be the culmination of a fierce argument in which he delivers the line as a coup de grace. The acting of the four leads is smooth and professional, and there are many moments of truthfulness, but the tone of restraint needs now and then to be breached with something more dynamic. The big sex scene, staged so close to the audience, is obviously difficult to do believably, even though Patti tells Jeff to keep his clothes on. But some way of making it seem as if he’s really doing what he’s supposed to be doing has to be found so that, when Jeff is forced to change positions, it’s clear he’s done more than slightly unzip his pants.

The Cell is not the best venue for this play, produced by Project Y Theatre Company. Designer Kevin Judge, perhaps restricted by a lack of funds, has chosen to use the physical properties of the performing space--which appears to be the renovated, white-walled, entry hall of a 19th-century townhouse (or business establishment?)--and not to add anything to it but living room furniture that can be converted to a bedroom by the movement of pillows. This is acceptable for the living room and bedroom scenes, but scenes in other locales are terribly out of place. A lunchroom encounter is actually held on the narrow steps on the rear wall, despite the sightline problems it creates, and Patti’s office is squeezed into the meager space behind the sofa. I understand the original Washington production used a revolve of some sort, which allowed each scene to be more fully represented.

THE RELIGION THING deals with significant subject matter. Whether it does so on a memorable level, both in its writing and performance, however, is another thing entirely.

Note: the Cell Theatre doesn't provide assisted listening devices.