Let’s say you pick up Eric Clapton, drive him to a wealthy suburb and pull into the driveway of a McMansion. You see in the garage that there are four teenage brothers – two with guitars, one on the drums and one on the bass – and they just formed a band yesterday. You tell Clapton he has to play with them.
Something like that happened Friday night when Next Act Theatre opened "Heresy," the 2-year-old A. J. Gurney play that is supposed to be some kind of morality event.
Here you had a cast of some of Milwaukee’s finest actors – including Drew Brehl, Carrie Hitchcock, Doug Jarecki, Alexandra Bonesho, Brian Myers, Mary Kababik and Michael Pocaro – and they were stuck in a piece of dreck that found some people even leaving at intermission. Nothing about this production was the fault of the actors, director or anyone else at Next Act.
Gurney is a playwright of imposing talents and memorable plays, including the famed "Love Letters" that has been performed thousands of times at all levels of theater. He is an uncloseted liberal who loves to ridicule what he sees as the conservative, wealthy, right-wing slice of this American life.
I get it. I understand that he has a message. Business is bad. Religion is bad. Regimentation is bad. Violence is bad. Guns are bad. The American dream has been washed down the toilet. Who even knows what the American dream is anymore? Sex is good, by the way, but only for liberals. Conservatives are forced to find sex with someone other than their legal partners.
He parlays this as a Biblical parody. Mary and Joseph have a son named Chris (add a "t" to that name). He is being held in protective custody by Homeland Security because he dangerously talked about the falsehood of religion and made other anti-establishment statements.
Mary and Joseph go to see the head of the local National Guard, Pontius Pilate, whom everyone calls Ponti. Joseph served with him in the guard. Pontius’ wife, Phyllis, sits in as they discuss what to do about Chris. Along comes his roommate Pedro (read Peter), and the whole thing is being recorded by an intern named Mark. And finally, to add insult to injury, along comes a hooker named Lena, whose real names is Magdalene. She slept with Pedro, Mark and Chris.
All of these parties debate what to do about Chris. Who can protect him from the ravages of the hordes who are just waiting to execute him for his blasphemy? If this is beginning to sound familiar, you get a gold star.
Here’s the list of problems with this whole thing.
First, not one of these characters seems real. I don’t care what kind of play you are doing; we have to believe that the people on stage are, well, people. These characters are drawn like one-dimensional cartoon cutouts. Not a genuine article in the whole bunch.
Second, the entire thing is so obvious that any elementary student (maybe down as far as second grade) would see each development coming from a mile away. A good play has some surprises in it. Maybe it’s dramatic tension or high comedy or a fight. But the only surprise in this play was that Next Act decided that one act (which is how the play was written) was not nearly enough so they had Jarecki and Myers write and score a second act that took place in a cabaret. I hope they keep their day jobs.
Third, nothing was funny. I mean nothing. Oh, they showed boobs and made jokes about them and played on words, but nobody really laughed.
At one point in the debate, Joe tells Mary he is surprised at all the speeches Chris has been giving. She responds with something that is supposed to be funny.
"You see, Joe," she said. "I keep telling you we should be watching more than Turner Classical Movies. (She turns to the others) Joe isn’t even comfortable with cell phones."
The final problem is what I call the Talk Radio Information sheet.
Every single point in this play was culled from the talking points that every liberal politician in the world and every liberal talk radio host in the world uses every moment of every day. There wasn’t an original thought in the entire thing.
The play seemed like nothing more than a rehashing of the days when we all sat around, listening to a bad folk singer, snapping our fingers instead of clapping and railing against "THE MAN!"
As I walked out, I felt sorry for these actors – wonderful all – who were trapped inside an empty cave with no way out. This was a shameless pandering to the worst instincts in liberals. Calling this a top-caliber play is, well, heresy.
"Heresy" runs through Dec. 14 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
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Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.