You Gotta Have Faith
Notes on a trinity of recent religion-themed shows: Altar Boyz, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and The Controversy of Valladolid.
The high concept of turning a bunch of altar boys into a boy band turns out to be a musical theater blessing. Altar Boyz is the immaculate conception of Marc Kessler and Ken Davenport; it's a dual sendup of boy bands and evangelicals that is carried off by a combination of clever lyrics and a talented young cast. The music, by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, purposefully mimics bland boy band rock 'n roll and is thus undistinguished, but it provides these same folks with a slate upon which they've written some divinely comic lyrics that capture character while incisively slicing and dicing hypocrisy. The book, by Kevin Del Aguila, gives just enough structure to what is essentially a concert parody. Christopher Gattelli's choreography lends the production its sheen, and Stafford Arima's direction is equally crisp.
Altar Boyz features an attractive cast of five performers, led by Scott Porter as Matthew but finally upstaged by Tyler Maynard as the hilariously closeted Mark. Andy Karl also stands out as Luke, a street-smart character, while David Josefsberg is amusing as a Jewish member of the band and Ryan Duncan literally adds another accent to the group as their Latin compadre. Happily, Altar Boyz doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: lightweight, entertaining fun.
Stephen Adly Guirgis, upon whom the stellar reputation of the LAByrinth Theater Company rests, has been best known to date as a gritty writer about characters of the urban underclass. With his new, wildly ambitious play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Guirgis has taken on a story about the religious underclass that eventually became Christianity, but his overall theme remains the same: he's still writing about redemption.
This big canvas production at The Public Theater, where the LAByrinth is currently in residence, is directed with considerable flair by Guirgis' consistent collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman. A large and talented cast plays a wide variety of biblical characters as a case is presented to a judge (Jeffrey DeMunn) in Purgatory that Judas (Sam Rockwell) should be forgiven for betraying Christ. Just about everyone you can imagine appears, from Mary Magdalene (Yetta Gottesman) to Christ himself (John Ortiz). Pontius Pilate (Stephen McKinley Henderson) offers one harsh point of view while Simon the Zealot (Salvatore Inzerillo) counters with yet another. The prosecuting attorney is played by Yul Vázquez in a sharply comic performance. But look out for Satan! The best casting of the year features Eric Bogosian in the role, and he's sinuously sensational.
Bad Play, Great Ending
The one thing that The Controversy of Valladolid has going for it is that it's based on a true story. This imagined recreation of the actual debate that took place in 1550 to determine the humanity (or lack thereof) of the Indians under Spanish rule in the Americas begins as shocking but soon becomes tedious; the debate, after all, is rather one-sided. The payoff doesn't come until the surprise ending, a twist that leaves you breathless with its harrowing implications.
Richard Nelson's adaptation of Jean-Claude Carriere's play tries to inject as much drama into the piece as possible. Still, despite a valiant effort by director David Jones, the play is finally more interesting as history than as theater.