In much the same way that religion has been ruined by the faithful, the joy and glory of theater continues to be undermined by audiences. Those cell phones, the coughing, the chit-chat a few rows behind you and, of course, the obligatory standing ovations borne either of low expectations or narcissistic self-congratulation always ensure that at least two productions are on display at any theatrical event.
Examples of this depressing observation are underscored repeatedly in "Benedictus," an unintentional comedy that is quite possibly the worst play I have ever, ever seen (not counting "Clive").
The fact that most of the audience actually returned after an intermission had let them out on parole demonstrates why religion, which is based on making rational people believe inherently silly things, has never died out. Folks are willing to do anything to get out of the rain, and even sitting through drivel makes them feel thankful when the weather’s bad.
"Benedictus" makes us bear the cross of watching this story of a pope who resigns his office. You may be forgiven for thinking this is a narrative of recent events, or at least a speculation inspired by them. Intriguingly, the play was allegedly written before Benedict XVI decided to step down.
But Herr Ratzinger’s famous red shoes are missing (our pope sports what appear to be moccasin-style slippers, replaced halfway through by something a small town banker would wear), and his meeting with the President of the United States introduces us to a man who will never be mistaken for Barack Obama. But if you’ve ever been curious as to what popes and politicians say to each other behind closed doors, especially when discussing the plight of humanity, Theater For The New City thinks it probably sounds something like this:
Pope: What can you do?
President: All I can.
Pope: A noble goal.
According to his bio, playwright Tom Attea has won awards as an ad writer, promoting various famous products. But if this is the sort of writing he’d pitched to the people at Dr. Pepper, we’d still be drinking Tab.
Attea has apparently had 14 years of Catholic school, and the play shows it. The characters obsess over unimportant dogmatic minutiae, none of which is very dramatic or interesting. Our pope is driven to resign due to nightly visitations from Jesus (in a horrendous wig, a crucifiable offense), Mother Mary and ultimately God himself. Later on, they are joined by the Holy Spirit, who speaks in a cartoonishly intense voice and pretends to be invisible (this is accomplished, such as it is, by stalking the stage slowly, arms all a-wiggle).
If one were to commit this holy trinity to oil and canvas, the result would smack less of DaVinci and more of dogs playing poker.
These landlords of Heaven essentially bully the pope mercilessly into resigning so that he may be free to preach a new gospel. The problem is the new gospel might be more effective if it’s preached by a pope, especially as it is not all that revolutionary or even in overt conflict with accepted doctrine. The play seems to take on a moderately liberal flavor, but the controversial departure is not that maybe priests should marry or condom use might be permissible for "consenting males," suggesting an acceptance of homosexuality, but rather that God wants us to enjoy this life now.
What a revelation.
Predictably, when this new tack doesn’t go well for our pope, the visitations stop and he is mocked by man and abandoned by Heaven. What’s the appeal and comfort of religion supposed to be again?
When our hero (or the closest thing to it) tells the crowd he has brought twelve new truths as imparted directly from Christ, the soul achingly groans, knowing he is going to go through all of them and prolong our suffering.
Distractions from such clunky claptrap would normally be welcome, but Theater For The New City seems to cater to a crowd that only compounds the annoyance. Burly men snoring, patrons texting, tumbling beer bottles and the gaggle of presumably inebriated women of a certain age provide less relief and more a sense of being in a congested subway, stalled in a tunnel with the AC shut off. I half expected this last contingent, barefoot and using the seats in front of them like ottomans, to implore the pope to "take it all off."
"Benedictus" does offer two redeeming qualities, and small as they are, they’re a bit miraculous under the circumstances.
First, if anyone in NYC has an idea for a show, but has been procrastinating or too fearful to breathe life into it, there is now no impediment. If this one can find funding, a space and even an audience, then there must be a place for everyone.
Secondly, Theater For The New City allows you to bring food and beverages inside. While I am not a fan of this practice, it’s the only thing that could save anyone trapped there. If you still plan to go, you can only do one thing to get out of it alive: