NEW YORK — America might be in for a restive and godless future, although in A.R. Gurney's clever new satire, "Heresy," some situations sound rather familiar. Except it's a place where "The Greatest Story" was never told.
The world premiere of Gurney's sharp comedy, in which he mocks organized religion, American consumerism and governmental paranoia, among other things, opened off-Broadway on Thursday at The Flea Theater in Tribeca. The smart and fun production features an excellent cast directed with precision by Jim Simpson.
Gurney applies his customary wit and irony to current events in this not-so-distant future. One character says the country is "run by the rich, for the rich, and dedicated to the proposition that they get even richer." Homeland Security and the National Guard work together to "prevent trouble," and there have been five "crackdowns" so far, with more expected.
Steve Mellor and Annette O'Toole play carpenter Joe and his wife, liberal activist Mary. They're the deeply concerned parents of a college student, Chris, who they just learned was hauled off by the police to some undisclosed location and has been held incommunicado without being charged. They've come to the government's Liberty Lounge to implore their old friend Ponty to intercede.
An orderly named Mark, who transcribes official gatherings on a netbook, says he hopes to "find stuff in these meetings that I can pull together into a meaningful story." Tommy Crawford is brightly enthusiastic as Mark, who puts a biblical spin into all his official writing that is familiar to the audience, but not to the characters.
Mark's comments and reporting form the satiric crux of the play. Although all the characters make occasional biblical references and familiar-sounding parallels, Gurney has Mark writing the Christian Bible as if it had never existed. None of the characters recognize any of the famous Bible quotes Mark utters throughout the play, which seem to occur to him like vague, long-lost memories. Mary even suggests he call it "The Minutes According to Mark."
"Ponty" is Pontius Pilate, (Reg E. Cathey, pompously dignified), the Prefect who now leads the National Guard. A proud man, he's a bit sensitive about the perception of his "leadership qualities."
His scatter-brained, increasingly tipsy wife Phyllis, (a very funny, let-them-eat-cake performance by Kathy Najimy), joins the meeting in formal dress to lord it over her old friends. They discuss Chris' situation over several drinks, often interrupted by Phyllis' gleeful non-sequiters, such as, "That's the whole point of being in politics. Pulling strings and making money. It's marvelous."
O'Toole is fierce and restless as Mary, who's angry about her missing son and the current state of "this so-called free country." She prowls around the stage, spitting out sarcastic commentary. Mellor provides a pleasant, down-to-earth persona for Joe, who confides that Chris holds the peculiar belief he was "born in a barn, under a special star."
Two young people arrive and explain why Chris was jailed. Danny Rivera wears an earnest, natural air as Chris' roommate Pedro, of whom Joe says, he's "a fisher of men. He's netted a lot of friends for our son Chris." Ariel Woodiwiss is glamorously intellectual as Magdalena, a frank young woman who says proudly that before she met Chris, "I have known many men."
Gurney takes a generally light tone with his satire, including self-referential jokes about the play itself. But he's serious about his themes, and the play ends with a dark prediction that circles back to the importance of a national conscience, an involved populace, and the original "birth in the barn."