The Crusade of Connor Stephens
Something terrible just happened. We know that from the photos of children running next to heavily armed police hanging in the lobby of the Jerry Orbach Theatre. We also see little shrines of candles and stuffed animals upon entering the theater. As participants in a culture stuck in an endless cycle of violence and public mourning, we understand these artifacts. We also hope that playwright-director Dewey Moss might shed some light on this depressing ritual in his new play, The Crusade of Connor Stephens. Disappointingly, all we get is a tear-stained melodrama of the most obvious variety.
The play opens with gay couple Kris (Alec Shaw) and Jim (Ben Curtis) preparing to attend the funeral for their adopted daughter, who was gunned down at school by a religious zealot named Connor Stephens. Stephens also shot Kris, but he survived and now wears a cast around his abdomen. His sister, Kimmy (Julie Campbell), and her husband, Bobby (Jacques Mitchell), have driven to Kris and Jim's small Texas town to be with them in this difficult time. Jim's family will also join them for the funeral: That includes his estranged mom (Katherine Leask), his Grandma Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber), and his dad (James Kiberd), affectionately known as Big Jim. Big Jim is the pastor at a Baptist mega-church and he does not approve of his son's lifestyle. In fact, he delivered an anti-gay sermon specifically mentioning his son right before the shooting, and Connor Stephens was there to hear it all.
Moss's script is perfectly calibrated to stoke our righteous gay fury, to the point that it often strains credulity. For instance, we learn that Stephens was a star athlete on the church basketball team, which certainly doesn't fit the loner profile of the vast majority of mass shooters. Big Jim pointedly mentions that Stephens was like a son to him in front of his actual son, whose daughter Stephens murdered. This is after Big Jim has already intimated that the little girl is in hell because she wasn't "saved."
As Big Jim, Kiberd plays one of the most cartoonishly loathsome villains currently on a New York stage. His oily hair slicked back, he wears cowboy boots under his double-breasted power suit (ironically, the homophobe sports the highest heels of anyone in the show, male or female). Topping it off, his face is painted an unnatural shade of orange to remind us of You-Know-Who (unsubtle costume design by Teresa Snider-Stein). Kiberd clenches his jaw and waves his hands wildly in the air when he's preaching (which is always). We wonder why anyone tolerates his presence, much less Jim and Kris.
The supporting characters feel equally contrived in their likability as Big Jim does in his nastiness. Huber does a fine job playing a sassy old woman on the side of the angels, giving us a hearty laugh when she encourages Bobby to punch Big Jim. Mitchell is appealingly hunky as Bobby, the good-hearted, agnostic straight ally. When Big Jim admonishes him to watch his mouth, Bobby retorts, "If I were you, I'd worry less about my mouth and more about the fact that I'm about to fill yours with my f*ckin' fist!"
The cast impressively turns on the waterworks for this schlock (Shaw's ugly cry is particularly authentic). It's hard not to feel something in such close proximity to pain. Big Jim's patriarchal manipulation is also liable to trigger anger, especially in audience members who have experienced the likes of him firsthand. Granted, the Big Jims of the world more often deliver their bigotry in more insidious ways, softening hate with talk of choice and love. Drawing out and exposing their methods would be a far more worthy use of stage time than this thoroughly unrealistic take-down of a straw-man Christian.
The phoniness of Moss's production extends to the design. The scrim walls of James Noone's set have the appearance of tinted glass under Zach Blane's television-studio lighting. The tastefully conservative upholstery and institutional grey carpet seem meant to telegraph that this is the domain of respectable (as opposed to colorful) gays, but it just makes it look like they live in the waiting room of an accounting firm. No amount of family photos or stuffed animals can convince us that this is a home inhabited by real people.
But that's just as well, because Moss has not written about real people. Rather, we get idyllic gay dads tormented by a Bible-thumping pantomime baddie. We know who to cheer and who to jeer, making The Crusade of Connor Stephens not much more than a secular morality play. It might be a daring thing to present in Mississippi, where the recently passed H.B. 1523 makes discrimination against LGBT people perfectly legal under the pretense of "religious liberty." But off-Broadway, Moss is just preaching to the choir.