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Passion Play

The crisis of faith over Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi.”

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The only other time Terrence McNally has been silenced wasat the 1995 Tony Awards, when his Love! Valour! Compassion! was voted best play of the Broadway season. “I want to thank the Manhattan Theatre Club for giving me what every playwright needs but so few have: a home where the doors are always open,” McNally said in his acceptance speech. By the time he spoke, CBS had pulled the plug on the broadcast, and only the folks at the Minskoff Theatre got to hear him express his gratitude to the company that had provided him a safe harbor for more than twenty years.

For a while last week, that safe harbor looked more like Pearl Harbor. Threatened with violence, the Manhattan Theatre Club had canceled plans to present McNally’s Corpus Christi, a contemporary parable in which thirteen gay men re-enact the life of Jesus, and in which -- reportedly, since few people have actually seen the as-yet-unfinished work -- reference is made to sex offstage among Jesus and his disciples. No less stunning than the cancellation were the denunciations that followed. McNally was furious. Athol Fugard, another of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s first-rank playwrights, yanked his new work from the roster. By the end of the week, Lynne Meadow, the company’s artistic director since 1972, and Barry Grove, the executive producer, reversed their reversal, restoring plans for a fall production of Corpus Christi and claiming -- not altogether persuasively -- that it had only been a postponement. Fugard, too, was back in the fold. Meadow lashed out at those who had accused them of censorship. “We have never censored a play,” she said. “Freedom of speech and supporting writers is what Manhattan Theatre Club has stood for for 25 years.”

But it was hard not to conclude that they had, if only briefly, caved to outside pressure. Knee-jerk though some of their detractors seemed to be, many were fueled by a righteous combination of anger and loss: How could a group that had contributed so much to the city’s cultural life allow itself to be pushed around by bigots? Had Grove and Meadow become so much a part of the Establishment that they thought they could drop a play and no one would notice?

In fact, they had good reason to be fearful. After reports about the play appeared in the New York Post, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called on elected officials to cut off the company’s public funding and attacked the play -- or at least the idea of the play, since clearly no one at the league had read it -- as “despicable” and “sick beyond words.” And lest anyone not share that view, the league promised to “wage a war that no one will forget” against anyone foolhardy enough to present Corpus Christi.

Suddenly, the theater was getting telephone threats addressed to “Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally. Because of you, we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground . . . Death to the Jews worldwide.” Those threats, Meadow and Grove insisted, led to their decision to delay the production until they could ensure adequate security. Rick Hinshaw, communications director for the Catholic League, flatly rejects the notion that its language was anything other than metaphorical, and insists that suggesting otherwise would be “like linking Martin Luther King to the Black Panthers.” But given the current climate of intolerance and the propensity of lunatics to drive home their views with semi-automatic weaponry, such facile disavowals are disingenuous at best.

“I blame a fearful culture,” Norman Lear said last week. “It’s so important that this entire culture doesn’t get on its knees before the religious right.”

In the end, Meadow and Grove really had no choice but to reinstate the play; their own history demanded it. Ever since the Manhattan Theatre Club’s salad days, when it operated out of the National Bohemian Hall on East 73rd Street, the company has offered a canny mix of mainstream and provocative fare. Few who were present from the beginning will ever forget plays like Fugard’s devastating Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, in 1978, a work that humanized the suffering under apartheid. Or, two years earlier, Ashes, David Rudkin’s harrowing portrayal of a Northern Ireland couple’s attempts to conceive -- brilliantly staged by Meadow herself. For almost every Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Crimes of the Heart, there was a Boesman and Lena, a Beggars in the House of Plenty.

But it’s been a long time since the company produced anything remotely dangerous; the flap over Corpus Christi will be useful if for no other reason than to remind us of this theater’s power to electrify.

Terrence McNally has been entertaining -- and challenging, and offending -- the loyal, if somewhat cranky Manhattan Theatre Club audience since the creepy Bad Habits (not about nuns) in 1973. Corpus Christi will be the eighth McNally play the company has staged. I haven’t liked them all, and some have deeply offended me; in fact, I wouldn’t mind requiring everyone who attacked the Manhattan Theatre Club to actually go see Corpus Christi in the fall. Now that ought to raise their blood pressure.

It’s been a tough spring for Meadow and Grove, and last week you could see every bad moment etched on their faces. Just a month ago, the playwright Richard Greenberg snidely attacked the Theatre Club’s audience, saying he would henceforth take his work elsewhere.

No need to pity Terrence McNally, though. At the end of this week, he’ll be back at the Tony Awards as author of the book for the musical Ragtime, and he may not leave empty-handed. More important, however, he’s found the doors to home are open again. The real drama will be how Meadow and Grove bear up under the pressure that is certain to increase as Corpus Christi makes its way to the stage.


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