Only Disconnect

A long-simmering play about the ties that bind tells us nothing new

Human beings, especially in the West, are obsessed with making connections. There's something very life affirming, it seems, about being able to draw a line between two formerly isolated phenomena and call it a theory. As the old journalistic saying goes, “Find two examples of anything, and you've got a trend. And if you've got a trend, you've got a story.” (In Eastern philosophy, contrastingly, oneness is a given, which may go some way toward explaining why pronouns are less important in Asian languages than they are in European ones. But I digress.)

Our culture has long articulated this deeply held belief in the power of connectivity. Michelangelo expressed the idea succinctly in the early 16th century when he painted Adam's finger almost touching God's on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; E.M. Forster made the drive for unity and mutual understanding one of urgency with the mantra “only connect” in his 1910 novel Howards End. In more recent times, works like Paul Thomas Anderson's movie Magnolia and Albert-László Barabási's book Linked have helped to enrich our contemporary understanding about the ties that bind individuals together in an age of dislocated communities and increasing isolation.

That being said, I think we're reaching a connectivity saturation point. As the world becomes cluttered with books on network theory, Web sites devoted to uniting us with our next job/apartment/life partner, and films and plays featuring ensemble casts in which apparent strangers jump into bed with one another only to discover they've had sex with that person before, it's hard to imagine that there's anything more to say on the subject. The fact is, we've gotten used to the idea — most famously espoused in John Guare's 1990 play — that there are no more than “six degrees of separation” between each person on this planet.

Either oblivious to this trend or under the impression that he has something of thrilling importance to add to the already lengthy canon, playwright Terrence McNally (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and others) has written a new play all about connectivity. Crucifixion, which explores the murder of a high-profile television producer by a Jesuit priest through the casual interactions among a bunch of seemingly disparate individuals, may not win any awards for originality of plot. But given that we're not necessarily as interested in what a four-time Tony Award-winning playwright has to say as in how he chooses to say it, the play might offer, at the very least, some unforeseen insight into an old subject.

Crucifixion has enjoyed the sort of development process that most nonprofit theater companies can only dream of. Besides the pedigree of the playwright — who seems to be missing only a knighthood from the French government (à la Carey Perloff) in a trophy cabinet otherwise stuffed with Tony, OBIE, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller accolades — the world-premiere production of Crucifixion was supported by thousands of dollars in funding from the Theatre Communications Group, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. McNally worked on the play for nearly two years in close collaboration with 11 actors — a comparatively huge cast by New Conservatory Theatre Center standards (and by most local standards, in fact). So organic was the process that each role, the program tells us, was informed by the “talents and personalities” of the specific cast members.

It comes as somewhat of a disappointment, then, that with all the hoopla, McNally's statement about connectivity can more or less be summarized with the following quote from the play: “Life is all about connections. You don't have to understand them, you just have to open yourself up to the possibility of them.” That's it? Tell me something new, Terry.

For a moment there, right at the start, I thought I might feel a connection with McNally's play. The white, minimalist set coupled with the white lights and the white noise of traffic and everyday street sounds provided a clean, blank canvas upon which the actors might paint a vivid landscape peopled with colorful characters interacting in meaningful ways. But besides Amanda King, who projects a fine deep blues voice in the role of nightclub singer Bernadette Avril, the actors never get the chance to show off the “talents and personalities” that were apparently so integral. With so many characters — ranging from a Bay Area weatherman and a public service attorney to a hustler and a Broadway composer, not to mention a coterie of homosexual priests — involved in telling the story, personalities are about as thin as a gay Jesuit's cassock. The vacuous, platitude-ridden dialogue only adds to the sensation of dislocation (“People drift apart; it's human nature,” “There's so much pain in the world,” etc.). Plus, the relationships between the characters seem at best tenuous, at worst confusing. The program notes should include a family tree or similar diagram just to help people understand who's fucking whom.

That the play mishandles the theme of connectivity isn't the main issue. The real problem, to my mind, is more insidious: It's to do with the lazy, superficial methods artistic directors and playwrights sometimes employ to try to forge links with their audiences. Crucifixion is a case in point. At the beginning of the play, for instance, all the actors come to the front of the stage and introduce themselves to the audience. “Hi, my name is Lizzie Calogero. I'll be playing the role of Bethany Orth”; “Hello, my name is Patrick Michael Dukeman. I'll be playing the role of Schuyler Hawk”; and so on. This process is repeated at the end of the play, in the past tense. If this is an attempt to bond with the audience, it's a contrived one.

Similarly, despite the risqué subject matter, Crucifixion is unprovocative. Its method of connecting with NCTC's largely gay audience is to please the crowd: feeding people what they want to see and (I suspect) what they already know to be true about gay life in San Francisco. I'm not suggesting that the play shouldn't be entertaining. But the one or two disjointed moments of fresh ironic insight about the correlation of religion and sex — as encapsulated, for example, by a carload of newly ordained priests out on the prowl for some firm young meat — are undermined by the gratuitous use of male nudity. McNally's story could just as easily have been told without the flailing penises and hairy butts. But judging by other shows I've seen at NCTC, perhaps spectators here have come to expect them as part of the experience.

There's no better place on Earth for creating connections than the theater. Unlike the one-way relationship between creator and audience that goes with the consumption of most books, films, paintings, and other forms of art, the intimacy and temporality of live theater make it possible to create interactions that are truly reciprocal. Ultimately, the task of any writer, director, or actor working on the stage is to find ways to engage audience members that are more than skin deep. It's the only way we'll ever make sense of our obsession with connecting the dots.

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