I was sitting in the Ricketson Theatre during the first half of Jesus Hates Me, reasonably engaged but thinking that Wayne Lemon's play really wasn't as funny as advertised -- although it was sort of funny now and then, sometimes even startlingly and unexpectedly funny, the kind of funny that forces surprised little snorts of laughter out of you. Other moments sounded soggy and Hollywoodish, though, too sitcom-sincere for the would-be outrageous setting. Still, by the time the house lights went up for intermission, the backstory had been delineated, the plot parameters were set, and the action was speeding up. This could end up being pretty enjoyable, I thought as I wandered out into the lobby.
But alas, the second act saw more sogginess and only intermittent bits of funny, all mixed with high-voltage drama as we lurched from the rollicking hijinks of a group of twenty-somethings trapped in stifling, rural, religion-laden Texas to the closet scene from Hamlet -- son accusing mother, mother accusing son, incestuous overtones. Not that this weird, sick, sad scene wasn't effective; it just seemed to come from somewhere deeper and more tragic than the rest of the action.
Some plot: Ethan lives with his religion-obsessed mother, Annie, in a trailer on a Jesus-themed golf course. Jesus and his apostles are represented by appropriately dressed (or undressed) and painted store dummies. To some extent, the play's humor relies on audiences finding these images shocking, and I imagine lots of people do, particularly in the Christ-drenched world where Lemon grew up as the son of a Southern Baptist minister. The sheriff, Trane, is African-American, and Ethan's best friend. He's on the hunt for the kidnapper of a little Vietnamese girl. There's also Lizzy, the bar owner with whom Ethan once had sex; dopey Boone, who ends up in bed with Annie (very funny, actually, though Ethan doesn't think so); and Georgie, who tried to kill himself during high school graduation and now -- in one of the script's truly inspired bits -- speaks through a voice box in a strange, low-pitched, mechanized tone that never fails to get a laugh.
After the play ended, I tried to piece together what I'd seen. I don't think it was the mix of humor, grotesquery and tragedy in Jesus Hates Me that threw me. Black humor is a time-honored genre that always carries an undercurrent of pain, rage and violence; it's a raised middle finger to life's vicissitudes, a way of dealing with unspeakable events by making rude jokes about them. But then there were those serious, conventional sequences -- the wistful musings of Lizzy; the protagonist's puerile, self-pitying rages against Jesus. ("You died for nothing. No? Then show me...you uncaring fuck!") Sifting through it all, I couldn't decide if my inability to see the play as a whole represented my shortcomings as a critic, or if the play itself was broken-backed. Stick with the jokes and you've got something, I thought. Combine the jokes with the awful, exhibitionist, half-mad, fiendishly possessive Medea of a mother, and you may have something even better. Perhaps something like Arthur Kopit's Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad. But despite the Wal-Mart mannequin Jesus hanging on his cross, sporting a party hat and a "Fuck off Ethan" banner, playwright Lemon lacks Kopit's unsparing ferocity.
There are definitely strengths in the script, though, as well as in the performances in this Denver Center Theatre Company production -- the world premiere of Jesus Hates Me. Annie, played with great range, skill and intensity by Kathleen McCall, was riveting whenever she appeared. I had no problems with Justin Adams's depiction of Ethan, and Chelsey Rives was an appealing Lizzy -- though she had to carry some pretty bad dialogue. Her memory of sitting on Santa's lap when she was five and feeling him get a hard-on struck me as ridiculous: The average five-year-old wouldn't recognize what was happening in a situation like that, let alone see it as a profound, existential betrayal. Marlon Morrison was good as Trane, and Craig Pattison had the bouncy energy required for Boone. Michael Keyloun gave an ironic, low-key and perfectly timed performance as Georgie.
I didn't care about these characters, which was fine when it seemed I wasn't supposed to: In farce, black or otherwise, empathetic identification is irrelevant. But there's something seriously wrong when the protagonist is feeling more pity for himself than you can muster up for him.
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