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A CurtainUp Review

"The Prefect and I were in the front lines during the First Crackdown."— Joe to the young office in charge of the headquarters for the National Guard/Homeland Security Office that's Heresy's futuristic setting. — Jo

"Which was not the last, I hasten to add."— Mary

"They say the First was especially brutal."— Mark
Reg Cahey
(Photo: Hunter Canning)
Most theater goers think of an A.R. Gurney play as a gentle put-down of the WASP milieu in which Mr. Gurney was raised— conventional upper crust types to whom the cocktail hour is sacred. While not a Broadway playwright, the frequency with which plays like Sylvia and Love Letters continue to be produced is nothing to sneeze at.

Gurney's modern drawing room comedies owe their enormous success to his ability to nourish us with just enough ideas about life's deeper meaning while making us chuckle. But for the last ten years, this chronicler of WASP culture, has been increasingly exacerbated about the stewardship of the country's welfare by our leaders. Being a writer, it was only natural to shift gears and focus less on the narrow world of WASPdom and explore the larger political landscape.

These more political plays were still fueled with humor and retained their mix of enlightenment and entertainment. The Gurney political phase began with his updating The Fourth Wall to apply to Bush Junior instead the first President Bush. That play was done by Primary Stages, but for the plays that followed at the rate of one almost every year, Gurney settled in at the Flea Theater in Tribeca. The big hit of these downtown plays was Mrs. Farnsworth. It was a sharp little satire and its box office success was no doubt helped by having Flea founder and director Jim Simpson's wife Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow playing tMr. and Mrs. Farnsworth.

Gurney's entire Flea oeuvre is fun and funny, even when the referential nature of the humor occasionally wears a bit thin. These plays have added a whole new Gurney fan base to the existing one. Most critics, this writer included, wouldn't think of missing the latest of these serio-comic offerings. Which brings me to the latest. It's a futuristic affair called Heresy with several acting pros (Reg E Cathey of The Wire, , Kathy Najimy, Annette O'toole and Steve Mellor joined by several of the Flea interns a.k.a. the Bats for whom several of these plays have been expressly written.

Much as I'd like to say that this is prime Gurney, I'm afraid that the opposite is true. The set up of an Orwellian Liberty Hall where the functions of the National Guard and Homeland Security have been combined where the local Prefect named Pontius (Cathey) lives up to his preferred title, "The Decider." The plot situation requiring the Decider's wisdom involves Chris, the son of two old friends, Joseph (Steve Mellor) and Mary (Annette O'Toole). It seems that Chris, a college student, was arrested and is now being held incommunicado at some unknown detention facility. Hs anxious parents have come to Liberty Hall to take advantage of Joseph's having served in the Guards with Pontius before retiring to be a carpenter.

Do you see where this is leading? It's hard to miss all those biblical name and occupational links. And there's the rub.

The puzzle pieces are so obvious that Gurney's loaded with clever references arrow simply lands with a thud. Even an able actor like Cathey can't do much to rescue his smarltly uniformed but superficial character in an ersatz scary universe from coming of as a caricature. Kathy Najimy, as his born-to-shop and supposedly smarter than she acts wife Phyllis, is another basically unfunny and not especially interesting character. Another fine actress, Karen Ziemba, is scheduled to take Najimy's place when she heads off to a TV assignment, but I doubt she'll be able to do much more with this tritely written role.

Annette O'Toole and Steve Mellor don't fare much better as the desperate parents, nor does Tommy Crawford as the intern who plans to turn the records he keeps into a best selling novel. Last and possibly worst to arrive on stage are Danny Rivera and Ariel Woodwiss — he as Pedro, the never seen Chris's roommate and she as Lena, a sexy call girl. Claudia Brown's form-fitting, open back dress for Lena is the star of this play.

It all adds up to a a sloppily structured, mostly unfunny and, dare I say it — boring — play by a playwright I've always admired and enjoyed. Blame it on the sad state of the bad patch we're going going through. It's enough to make even Mr. Gurney whose way of getting gets mad about the state of our union is not to yell and shout shades of Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, but to Instead write a clever little comedy about it.

Links to A. R. Gurney's other, and better, political plays for the Flea
Oh, Jerusalem - 2003
Mrs. Farnsworth -2004
Screenplay 2005
Post Mortem - 2006
A Light Lunch- 2008
Office Hours - 2010

Heresy by A. R. Gurney
Directed by Jim Simpson
Reg E. Cathey (Pontius.), Tommy Crawford (Mark), Steve Mellor (Joseph), Kathy Najimy (Phyllis), Annette O’Toole (Mary),Danny Rivera (Pedro), Ariel Woodiwiss (Lena)
Set design: Kate Foster
Lighting design: Brian Aldous
Costume design: Claudia Brown
Sound design: Jeremy S. Bloom
Stage manager: Michelle Kelleher
Running Time: 85 minutes without Intermission
The Flea Theater 41 White Street, Tribeca
From 9/9/12; opening; closing. 11/04/12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 6th Press preview
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