* Written by Terrence McNally * Directed by Joe Mantello

As dramatic literature, Terrence McNally’s *Corpus Christi* leaves a lot to be desired. Yet as a piece of theater, Joe Mantello’s production at Manhattan Theatre Club puts the play at the hot center of gay American culture in 1998. This is the play whose plot synopsis -- a contemporary retelling of the story of Jesus and his disciples as gay men -- pissed off the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and inspired telephone threats to burn down the theater, kill its staff, and exterminate the playwright. Even now, before passing through the metal detectors installed to protect Manhattan Theatre Club, audience members have to step around gay-haters on the sidewalk holding signs saying things like “Terrence McNally Sodomizes Jesus -- And Your Mother Is Next.”

Inside, the actors in street clothes hang out on a bare stage stripped to the back walls. As the show begins, one actor (Michael Irby, who plays John the Baptist) calls each actor by his name, splashes him with water, christens him with the name of his character, and says, “I baptize you and recognize your divinity as a human being. I adore you.” Taking the time to perform this ritual has an overpowering emotional effect. It models a simple way to call in spiritual protection for people in danger, and it conjures up the roots of theater in religious ceremony. And like the early, possibly autobiographical scenes of Joshua (the Jesus character) as a musically inclined gay boy tormented by classmates growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas (McNally’s hometown), the blessing of the actors reveals the playwright’s true audacity. He takes seriously the teachings of Jesus Christ that all human beings are well-loved children of God, not mere slaves quaking in fear of some punishing deity. If that’s the case, why not portray Jesus as Everygayman?

On a conceptual level, *Corpus Christi* has a lot of resonance, but the details add up to a muddle. McNally purposely tries to let his own life story and that of the historical Jesus co-exist in time, so that references to Elvis Presley and Lucille Ball jostle Roman centurions and the garden at Gethsemane. Sometimes you get the sense that he’s on to something. For instance, the scene in which Joshua magically heals an HIV-positive hustler seems to be reflecting how many times we’ve heard people with AIDS transformed by protease inhibitors likened to Lazarus, whom Jesus was said to raise from the dead. Yet other scenes seem to rattle off the Greatest Hits of Sunday School as if by rote. McNally may want us to think about the wisdom that suffering brings to oppressed peoples but he doesn’t show that happening onstage. The high-school scenes do present Joshua surrounded by roughneck bullies. But once he’s assembled his disciples, we don’t see any opposition. All we see is a group of great-looking guys out of a Banana Republic ad playing gay professionals who gave up careers in corporate law, medicine, and hairdressing to spread the gospel of love.

In his long career McNally has deftly dramatized homophobia (most skillfully in *Lips Together, Teeth Apart*). But with *Corpus Christi*, it’s Joe Mantello’s smartly open-ended production more than the script that invites the audience to make its own connections to the persecution of outsiders today. Still, the evening news gave the play its final punch. The brutal murder of Matt Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, who died the day before *Corpus Christi* opened, inescapably hovered over the final scene of the play, in which one character point to the crucified Joshua and says repeatedly, “Look what they did to him!”

The Advocate, November 24, 1998

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