Jesus H. Christ!

In an age when a former professional wrestler (and current elected official) declares organized religion a crutch for the weak-minded (who need strength in numbers), a talking-head presidential candidate spews inflammatory remarks about religious groups and a so-called reverend pickets the funeral of a murdered gay man, it seems a shame that there's not a constitutionally mandated separation between church and idiot. Or a similarly high principle banning intolerance, ignorance and mediocrity.

But if that were the law of the land, plays like Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi would have a hard time seeing theatrical -- or is it overly dramatic? -- light. Before New York's Manhattan Theatre Club premiered the controversial drama about a spiritual gay man and his twelve followers, the group was the object of bomb threats from religious zealots, criticism from sharp-tongued pundits and reviews from journalists who hadn't even seen the play. All of which generated groundswells of interest in a work that's more superficial and far-fetched than probing or iconoclastic.

McNally's drama is most compelling when he borrows verbatim from the more riveting passages of the gospel; if his version sometimes fails to touch the heart, sway the mind or stir the soul, the Theatre Group's production is decently staged, competently acted and mostly free of incendiary rhetoric. And instead of injecting the play with heavy doses of self-righteous rancor, director Steven Tangedal chooses to let the broadly drawn characters and the sublime biblical account of Christ's crucifixion speak for themselves.

That proves to be an astute approach, given McNally's hit-and-miss examination of the faith he's intent upon questioning. For instance, he doesn't address the paramount tenets of Christianity -- the resurrection and transfiguration of Jesus aren't included in this version -- even though one of the characters implies portentously at the outset that we're in for a thorough hearing ("We all know how it ends," he says). In addition, the playwright names his characters after Christ's disciples and recounts familiar apostolic events but christens his modern-day protagonist Joshua (August Mergelman) instead of Jesus and makes him an easygoing, confused young man who hails from the same Texas town where McNally grew up, Corpus Christi (which translates as "the body of Christ"). And the dramatist suggests that monetary considerations weren't the only thing that prompted a spurned Judas (Gary Culig) to betray the man he once kissed passionately during a dance at Pontius Pilate High. "I did love you, you know," whispers Joshua. "Not the way I wanted," replies Judas. One gets the feeling that McNally is guilty of the very offense he seems to condemn: bending the scriptures to fit a narrow set of beliefs instead of making the requisite leap of faith to accommodate a more inclusive vision.

Philosophical wrangling aside, the actors deliver the material with an arresting mixture of sensitivity and flair. Rather than portray Judas as a scheming, weak, conniving turncoat, Culig shows us an ambivalent creature bound up in a raging storm not of his own making but made all the worse by his every word and deed. Mergelman's Joshua seems equally at the mercy of external forces that encroach upon his wish to lead an uncluttered, uncompromised life. Whether he's portraying the mother of Jesus or Peter, Jesus's supposed "rock," Brian Houtz illuminates each part with an infectious combination of wit and empathy. And the rest of the ensemble is adept at stepping in and out of character with skillful precision.

An abundance of humor, much of it intentionally sharp-edged and over-the-top, offsets the play's more serious overtones. "You have some kid chewing on your tits and see how you like it," Mary says to Joseph, who, for his part, is demonized as a foul-mouthed wife-beater in an apparent attempt to emphasize the fact that gays have been similarly -- and just as irrationally -- stigmatized throughout history. And Tangedal's stylized staging of the passion gospel, coupled with Culig's quietly lyrical reading of it, is provocative and moving. However inconsistent and ineffective at times, McNally's parable underscores the idea that, as far as religion is concerned, there's always room for interpretation. Especially when it comes to creating a deity in one's own image.

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Jim Lillie

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