nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 17, 2007
This is probably the first time I've gone to review a show and ended up hugging the performer. Written and performed by Leslie Harrell Dillen, directed by Melissa J. Wentworth, Action Jesus, a tour-de-force solo show, is a combination spiritual journey and travelogue of downtown New York City as a middle-aged woman visits the landmarks of her bohemian past.
Originally from Oklahoma City, the character Leslie now leads a comfortable New England life in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with husband Fred and grown daughter Tatiana, yet Leslie yearns for more. She belittles her prayer life: "I either fall asleep or start making to-do lists." Seeking deeper spirituality, Leslie nervously prepares to meet her new spiritual director—"I feel like I'm going on a date with God"—and starts listening for promptings from God. Her friend Doug gives her an Action Jesus doll for Christmas, and tells her, "We are all angels to each other without even knowing it." When Fred goes skiing alone for three months, Leslie's friend Chloe offers Leslie her empty New York City apartment for all of February. Leslie seizes this trip for moments of "experiential research," and packs Action Jesus along. But is she really receiving clues from God?
Wonderfully delicious details, physical and mental, enhance Leslie's month-long pilgrimage to the neighborhoods she knew as a young aspiring actress. She visits the Waverly Place apartment building "where Alfredo lived, where I lost my virginity, where Tatiana was conceived." She's jarred awake at 4:30am by a neighbor man laughing at his dog BJ. She buys funky clothing at 75% off at Saks. She eats an individual three-layer cake from the Polka Dot Bakery. A magazine article about Spalding Gray's disappearance and feared suicide moves her to "really pray." ("I wonder, how could someone so gifted, who's changed so many lives, feel despair?") She reconnects with a Broadway playwright, "R," remembering that her book club has asked her to do some flirting. A writer, she creates two characters, Molly and Max, whom she thinks may reflect the relationship "between the invisible and the visible, between Jesus and me." Carrying Action Jesus in her purse, she stumbles upon an erotic art show by Judy Chicago at a SoHo gallery, and spots Erica Jong at a Susan Cheever reading. She muses that sexuality may be a gateway to spiritual power. In her days without schedule or itinerary, "I can hear my intuition because the white noise I usually carry around my head has washed away."
Action Jesus is hilarious and profound; middle-aged Christian or spiritually-minded women may especially identify. Dillen, with her red hair, black ruffled skirt, and turquoise necklace, is a superb actress. Lively, joyous, and exuberant, she's committed thoroughly to recreating this journey for us, even giving us a dance or two. David Remedios's sound design, which includes bells and grocery store beeps, add to the experience.
Sex talk abounds—not too gross or graphic—so I highly recommend Action Jesus for adults and mature-minded teenagers. The more prudish among us might skip this, or see it and challenge their prudishness.