nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 21, 2005
To Nineveh begins with two men naked in bed together, while in her bathroom (simultaneously but in another location) a woman plans a Sunday School lecture about the story of Jonah. The woman's name is Rebekah; the two men in bed are named Jonah and Jacob (the latter is Rebekah's son).
Later Rebekah will tell the story of Jacob and Esau to her class, though she won't seem to recognize it in her own family. For indeed her elder son is also Esau, and her husband is Isaac, and even though they apparently live in present-day America, Isaac is "God's Lawyer" and the primary arc of the play/their lives parallels the biblical tale we're all familiar with: Rebekah loves Jacob; Isaac prefers Esau; Esau assumes he will inherit his father's business (birthright), but with Rebekah's intervention Jacob deceives his father into leaving it to him instead.
So far so good, sort of: it can be interesting to recast an oft-told story such as this one in contemporary terms to see what we can learn from it. But playwright Bekah Brunstetter is not content merely to translate an ancient tale to our times. She mixes in elements from two other Bible stories, first of all—a lover for Jacob whose name is the same as the prophet who was swallowed by a whale, and a temptress for Isaac whose name is Delilah, of Samson fame.
Brunstetter also adds details that are wholly her own. Jacob, as you've guessed by now, is gay, though closeted at the beginning of the story. He's also not really Isaac's son; instead, he's the product of Rebekah's fling with her gynecologist, Alfred, who went on to die in a plane wreck and ever since has been a benign spirit haunting Rebekah. Jacob is a composer, Esau is a high-powered attorney. The whole family are Baptist.
Brunstetter also has God as a character in her play, unseen but speaking frequently, accompanied each time by the "ding" of a hotel's front desk bell. Brunstetter's God is pretty much a Baptist one, at least in broad outline: He's virulently opposed to homosexuality, and vehemently concerned with maintaining his sway over his believers. Isaac describes his job, as God's chief representative on Earth, this way:
You go where the anger is,
And get rid of it. Fix it. You watch the screen for what to do, and you do it.
Someone loses a child, you tell them everything happens for a reason, and that their child is in heaven, and that they will join their child in heaven, if they lead pious lives.
Someone loses a parent, you tell them everything happens for a reason, and that their parent is in heaven, and that they will join their parent in heaven, if they lead pious lives.
Someone loses a business, you tell them everything happens for a reason, and that their business is in heaven, and that they will join their business in heaven, if they lead pious lives.
This is, I think, pretty strong writing, indicative of what Brunstetter is capable of as a playwright. But the plotting and structure of To Nineveh are muddled and confusing. She calls this a "modern miracle play" but I don't know what that means. She provides as dramaturgical background summaries of the Bible stories of Jonah and Delilah but I don't know what they have to do with her play; and quotes from Andrew Sullivan and George Bush about homosexuality that I also can't fit in. If the play is meant straightforwardly (as, in Isaac Byrne's generally naturalistic staging, it appears to be), then I think it's about a God who somehow slips up for a second and finds that a despised gay man has become his prophet on Earth, who He destroys (after having destroyed his father for disobeying His word by sleeping with Delilah; God does not destroy the mother, however, who follows His prescriptions to be pious even though she is an adulteress)
If it's meant to be more symbolic (which I suspect is Brunstetter's intention), then I think it's about a chain of hypocrisy—father, mother, and God—that we can only hope will someday be broken by the power of truth and love (represented, though somewhat flimsily, in the character of Jonah).
I'm working hard here, in any event, trying to make it all come together; Brunstetter simply hasn't stated any thesis successfully in her play. I see evidence of talent in this work; To Nineveh is audacious and brash and deliberately blasphemous and subversive in places, but it doesn't really add up to all that it wants to be.
The elements of Isaac Byrne's production for Working Man's Clothes are all commendable, though set designer Steve Tucker's use of the same piece of furniture to triple as bed, table, and desk slows down scene transitions. Roy Miller and Ellen David, the most experienced members of the cast, turn in the most accomplished performances as Isaac and Rebekah, with strong support provided by David Carr-Berry and Andaye Hill in brave turns as Jonah and Delilah and newcomer Paul Fears becoming more and more assured as Jacob as the evening progresses.