Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi opened in New York last year to protests, picket lines and death threats, because McNally recasts Christ as a gay man from South Texas.
None of that Sturm und Drang has been stirred up at the Little Room Downstairs Theater for the current Houston run of the play, which gets no more outrageous than those two basic changes in retelling the familiar Christian tale.
In fact, the work, which McNally has called "more a religious ritual than a play," comes off a bit like a sweetly done Christmas pageant under Richard Laub's direction.
The 13 actors stay on stage, visible to the audience, during the entire two-hour performance. They don scarves and odd props to play a variety of roles, including Mary, Joseph, a mad masseur, and a blind truck driver, as well as the disciples. Kent Davidson portrays a very angelic-faced Joshua (Jesus). Matt Joseph has some fun as a sexy, smart and altogether slimy Judas (the bad guys have all the fun). The rest of this cast of young men is energetic and earnest, and strong enough to keep this very old tale alive and surprisingly vibrant.
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The first half of the show is the better. It's a sort of holy-guy-comes-of-age in the time of cafeteria dances and pimply-faced teenage girls. Of course, Joshua is the kind of boy who likes poetry and musicals, which doesn't sit well with his mother. But when Judas meets him in the boys' room and shows him what he has been missing, everything falls into place for Joshua, at least in the dating area.
This boy's real problem has to do with the hammering he has heard in the background throughout his childhood. That is the pounding of the nails into the cross. Joshua hears his fate in the distant future long before he understands it.
Once Christ becomes a man, McNally resorts to more narration than drama, and the story loses power. In spite of the weak dramatic devices employed during the telling of Christ's miracles, there are some surprisingly heartrending moments. The play is, after all, a story about faith. Is there anything more inspiring in the human condition?
Corpus Christi runs through October 30 at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, 2328 Bissonnet, (713)523-0791. $12-15.