Religious hypocrisy is the subject of Houston playwright Michael Morrow's The Secret Tapes of Jesus, given its premiere this month at the newly opened Westheimer Art Bar & Theatre. Subtitled "A Consciousness Comedy," The Secret Tapes is a mordant satire of the limits of conventional morality in the face of human extremity, e.g., the decimation of a generation of young people by an incurable plague. The play's immediate emotional effect is sadly reinforced by the program's announcement that on March 26, two weeks before the opening of this, his first play, Michael Morrow died of AIDS.
Morrow was the creator of The Minister Mike Show, a parody of television evangelism produced for the Access Houston channel. Morrow's unlikely inspiration was another Access show, a Christian documentary called Todd's Last Regret that purported to portray the deathbed repentance and conversion of a gay man, whose disease was seen as a godly punishment. Morrow's acid response to this moral condescension runs throughout The Secret Tapes, which closes with a bitterly abrasive parody: another deathbed "conversion" used as the studio set for a self-righteous religious advertisement.
Unfortunately, Morrow's stagecraft was not quite equal to his moral fervor. His play is a grandly ambitious, disjointed, intermittently funny, thematically top-heavy exercise in preaching to the choir. That the choir might be in need of spiritual sustenance is, one supposes, some degree of justification. But as a play, The Secret Tapes is structurally awkward and dramatically tepid, generating most of its effects with campy and obvious gags or, more annoyingly, with its own brand of self-righteousness.
The play's most effective device is the narration, delivered by Tim Hanlon as none other than Jesus himself. Introducing his "holograms" of human history, Hanlon's Jesus is a sexually ambiguous, kindhearted '90s hipster who gently recounts humorous tales of his Vietnamese hairdresser and Jewish analyst. Hanlon is amusingly deft at establishing the conventional look of the iconic Western Jesus and then quietly undermining it; his sanctified poses at each blackout are like a series of dime-store holy cards.
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The holy holograms that make up the play's three vignettes are considerably less successful. The first takes place in a Neiman-Marcus dressing room, where a wealthy matron (Jenny Lee Wax) and her gay son (Joel Sandel) trade endearments and insults and then have a heated discussion of Presbyterian attitudes toward homosexuality. Scene two, "Jenny Lies," is set in a Nazi concentration camp and portrays a Jewish girl (Lauren Lewis) forced to prostitute herself to a brutish but "Christian" Nazi (Colin McLetchie). The third scene is Morrow's fierce revision of "Todd's Regret," in which a P.W.A. desperately "accepts Jesus" in order to receive medical care.
The knee-jerk anti-clericalism of all this is drearily obvious, and if you miss the moral lessons, Jesus kindly explains them, along the lines of "love is good, hate is bad." Even He wonders if the sexually crude death-camp scene might be anti-Semitic. Perhaps not, but the word "tasteless" does spring to mind. The reprehensible Christian ladies of the final scene (Wax and Mary Hooper, who also directed) are easily identifiable -- they have east Texas drawls and very big hair. Were hypocrisy, like bad taste, so readily distinguished, moral judgment would certainly be a much easier matter.
In sum, The Secret Tapes of Jesus is full of ferociously good intentions, a few hearty laughs and a handful of affably catty tips on style.
-- Michael King