The Meatpacking District on the Friday night before the Pride March felt as though the pandemic had never happened. Beautiful young partygoers frolicked in the streets with Real Housewives of New Jersey, all gleefully unmasked. As I sipped a glass of Gavi during my pre-theater dinner, the Irish fatalist in me suspected that it was all too much, too soon — that we residents of Gotham were inviting God's wrath with our sudden abandonment of the commandments that have (partially) shielded us from Covid this past year. But the Irish rebel in me thought, "Good for us. I'm going to the Eagle on Sunday and if I choose to wear a mask, it will be purely for fun."
As of publication, I haven't been struck down for my hubris, but the seven new American plays presented in Seven Deadly Sins have given me a lot to think about when it comes to the behavior we choose to discourage, and why. Originally conceived by Michael Hausmann for Miami New Drama, and directed here by Moisés Kaufman, this collection of short plays (all roughly 10 minutes in length) begins in front of an empty storefront across from the Whitney Museum that a neon light tells us is "Purgatory." RuPaul's Drag Race star Shuga Cain emerges from this bleak transitory space decked out in glittering vestments and swinging a censer, recalling a time when a drag queen's only real option was the clergy. She separates us into small tribes, each led by a tour guide, for this exploration of sin in its deadliest forms.
My Virgil for the evening was Madison, a cheerful church volunteer-type who directed our attention to the former sites of the Mineshaft and the Lure as if she was pointing out the Hershey's and M&M stores in Times Square. She was also a relentless cheerleader for the plays, a quality that would have grown irritating if not for the fact that all of them are excellent.
Thomas Bradshaw's Hard (inspired by Sloth) showcases a husband (Brandon J. Ellis) who prefers junk food and video games to sex with his hot wife (Shamika Cotton), and is likely to make the married couples in the audience squirm in recognition. The most timely of the plays, MJ Kaufman's Wild Pride is about a trans YouTuber (Cody Sloan) who makes a career-ruining move by admitting he doesn't have all the answers for his viewers (Bianca Norwood). Ngozi Anyanwu's gorgeously written Tell Me Everything You Know (inspired by Gluttony) is the most biblically familiar of the plays, about a naked woman (Morgan McGhee) in a garden who seeks knowledge from a stranger (Shavanna Calder wearing fabulous chain-link hair). Knowledge seemed to tie all three of these plays together: The naked woman hungrily seeks it, the YouTuber feigns having it, and the lazy husband spends all of his time attempting to obliterate it.
The other four plays take place a short walk away on West 13th Street: Ming Peiffer's Longhorn (inspired by Wrath) features a professional dominatrix (Kahyun Kim) and a man willing to pay top dollar to be humiliated by her (Brad Fleischer). It features the most bloodcurdling stream of racist invective I've ever heard on a New York stage. Moisés Kaufman's Watch (inspired by Greed) is about rich Cuban siblings (Tricia Alexandro and Eric Ulloa) in an inheritance dispute, while Jeffrey LaHoste's Naples (inspired by Envy) takes us to Versailles, where Princess Elisabeth Charlotte (Caitlin O'Connell) prosecutes a palace intrigue with her husband's vain lover (Andrew Keenan-Bolger). When it comes to the sins of the most privileged, it's plus ça change.
The most impressive physical performance of the evening comes from Donna Carnow in Bess Wohl's Lust. She plays a remarkably agile pole dancer whose internal monologue (voiced by Cynthia Nixon) about parent-teacher conferences and laundry is interrupted when an abusive client walks in the door. The production has stationed extra security around the stage, but this still doesn't prevent bystanders from filming their cute little Instagram stories about strippers in windows heralding the triumphant return of Sodom and Gomorrah. If only they knew!
Of course, one cannot get the full experience without the headphones which allow us to hear the dialogue going on behind the glass of the empty storefronts scenic designer David Rockwell has cleverly turned into pop-up stages. In its own late-capitalist way, Seven Deadly Sins assumes the form of medieval Christian tableaux, a once-popular way to convey biblical stories to illiterate peasants who wouldn't otherwise have gleaned much from the Latin mass. Each play performs nine times a night as the small clusters of audience cycle through each station.
This isn't the first time the secular theater has borrowed from religious forms: In 2006, a young Alex Timbers helmed Hell House, a surprisingly earnest take on evangelical haunted houses that warn visitors about the consequences of abortion and sodomy. Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's The Mysteries presented testaments old and new from the perspectives of 48 playwrights and just as many actors, creating an off-off-Broadway spectacle the likes of which we are not likely to see again now that the Bats have been disbanded.
Seven Deadly Sins doesn't quite reach the high bar set by those shows, but its arrival right at the tail end of a pandemic feels far more momentous. Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project have staged a high-quality off-Broadway show in found spaces for an audience ready to go back to the theater. Even if restrictions weren't lifting faster than a tank top at Pride, this show could still be performed, proving that with a little flexibility and ingenuity, the theater will always find a way. It may be a sin, but it's hard not to feel proud of that.