Theatre: The gay Christ: much ado about nothing

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Corpus Christi

Manhattan Theater Club

After a protracted off-stage melodrama, Terrence McNally's - better known as "the gay Jesus play" - finally opened in New York last week. A few days previously, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, had been lured from a Wyoming bar by two men, beaten into a coma, tied to a fence and left to die. Unavoidably, Shepard's death lends a sickening relevancy to the provocative central metaphor of McNally's passion play, a queer retelling of the most resonant hate crime in history.

Most New York theatre-goers will likely bring to a fair amount of goodwill, although death threats resulted in the play's temporary cancellation last spring; Given the backdrop of religious-right hysteria, the impulse is to applaud McNally's bravery, his willingness to create serious political art while grappling with complex issues like religion and sexuality. But, as it turns out, the play is as unilluminating as it is inoffensive, decidedly unraunchy and often alarmingly amateurish.

As a piece of writing, is both simplistic and muddle-headed, sorely lacking in wit and imagination. McNally's Jesus figure - here named Joshua - is born to a white-trash Mary and Joseph in 20th-century , Texas. At Pontius Pilate High, the chosen one undergoes what McNally (who was, incidentally, born in and raised Catholic) evidently believes to be the quintessential high-school experience for gay middle-American teenagers - Joshua is bad at sports, good at drama, and humiliated at the prom. Realising his destiny, the sexually confused messiah sets about assembling his apostles (all gay); before long, he's performing miracles and preaching his (in this rendition, not terribly profound) message of love.

isn't a complete failure: Joe Mantello's direction is energetic and resourceful, and the actors are all more than competent, if not especially distinguishable. The one standout is Josh Lucas, who plays Judas, Joshua's object of desire, as an irresistibly menacing tease; it helps that he doesn't have to spout nearly as many platitudes as the other performers.

But the director and actors can only do so much given McNally's haphazardly drafted blueprint. The present-day setting at first seems little more than an excuse for flip, feeble humour (when Mary gives birth, someone exclaims "Jesus Christ!"). Even more infuriatingly, McNally abandons the contemporising touches as the play progresses - mere moments after Joshua heals an HIV-positive hustler, Roman centurions show up. When Joshua is finally crucified (in his Calvin Klein briefs), the scene is devoid of all the force and poignancy that you'd expect, largely because the events leading up to it are correspondingly unconvincing. McNally's disregard for context suggests he was too enamoured of his play's vague symbolic import to bother with simple logic. This smugness, which taints much of the writing, is what's ultimately most disappointing about . With the culture wars raging on in America, a play like this needs to be defended all the more fiercely; regrettably, it's worth defending only on principle.

'': Manhattan Theater Club (001 212 581 1212), to 29 November.