Heresy – Well Conceived But…


Heresy is a nifty concept: Mary (Annette O’Toole) and Joe (Stephen Mellor) have come to a Homeland Security Office to discover the reason for, and whereabouts of, their suddenly imprisoned college student son, Chris. And to get him released. As old friends of the now powerful Prefect, Pontius Pilate/Ponty (Reg E. Cathey) and his wife, Phyllis (Kathy Najimy), who turns up at her husband’s workplace to say hello and stays, they hope to cut through normally extensive red tape. Other characters include Chris’s roommate Pedro (Danny Rivera) who turned his friend in to protect him and Lena (Ariel Woodiwiss), short for Magdalena, either a prostitute or a sexual libertarian, who declares herself Chris’s girlfriend.

The unseen hero, who is Mary’s child by undisclosed liaison, has always been different. In the second grade, he told his class he was born in an Albany barn under a special star. The boy grew up raising money for Amnesty International, working with Student Watch, excelling on the debate team. Chris believes one can be religious without adhering to a particular religion. He’s against devouring consumerism. Joe calls him “highly collaborative and full of grace. I job him in as a carpenter whenever he’s free.” (Pilate’s son, on the other hand, sells derivatives.)

In the course of an alcohol-fused discussion of Chris’s activism (with which he emulates his outspoken mother), the group decides whether to have him left where he is, “he passed water boarding with flying colors,” moved to a minimum security facility, “ghost writers and conjugal visits are allowed,” or released against clear risks of his being murdered. The meeting is documented by an intern named Mark (Tommy Crawford) who also bartends. Mark turns phrases to suit his big-picture narrative. When Mary says Chris worked for Save the Children, the scribe quotes him saying “suffer the children….” When Chris is described as a benevolent leader, Mark writes he bears “a love that surpasses all others.” You get the idea.

The play is a clever, entertaining skit, less thought out than Gurney’s other work, not realizing its full potential for satire. A character’s reference to “A.R. Gurney’s Heresy” and a couple of jibes at Clint Eastwood (though deserved) make me wince. I find them cheap shots and plot disconnects. About two thirds of the way through, the work picks up substance when, extricating itself from dry polemic, Chris’s actual issues are described. This is followed with excellent momentum by the splendidly imagined resolutions each of his loved ones would provide were the boy released.

Annette O’Toole creates a raging, liberal Mary, fed up and out to protect her son at all costs. She aptly moves with the same staccato manner with which she thinks. Impatient vehemence is completely credible.

Steve Mello (Joe) offers as solid and understated a performance as they come. He is, at all times, naturalistic and grounding. We recognize his Joe.

Kathy Najimy (Phyllis) should give classes for stage inebriation. Her speech, gaze, and woozy gestures are never too big and always amusing. The cutsie relationship Phyllis has with her husband is grandly irritating.

Reg E. Cathey (Pontius) is excellent. Complete illumination of his character’s smooth/thoughtful, imposing persona in direct opposition to moments when a wide, sunshiny grin suddenly appears works beautifully to surprise and intrigue. Skillful interpretation.

Director Jim Simpson uses his one room set exactly as his characters might. Comic timing is well executed. Pontius’s relationship to Phyllis is much better illustrated than that of Joe and Mary – a missed opportunity. Lena displays just the right sexuality without appearing to be a tart.

Kate Foster’s Set Design provides an effective environment. Pre-show video graphics are terrifically evocative. The change from a room utilized for Homeland Security meetings to an innocuous and officious office is well thought out. The bar is a visual giggle.

Claudia Brown’s Costume Design is, to me, problematic. Pontius Pilate’s uniform is splendid (as is Marks’s), but Phyllis’s evening wear in the middle of the day feels completely out of place. Joe’s clothing is just as it should be, but Mary’s looks like the wardrobe choice of a poor, classless geek. Pedro’s student apparel is natural, while Lena’s ill-fitting number looks like it was run up yesterday out of whatever cheap, glittery fabric could be found.

Photos by Hunter Canning
1. Opening- L to R- Steve Mellor, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey, Annette O’Toole
2. Danny Rivera, Ariel Woodiwiss, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey

Heresy by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Jim Simpson
The Flea Theater
41 White Street (Betw. Broadway and Church)
Through November 4, 2012

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