nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 15, 2008
In Jonathan Kravetz's allegorical play Prayer, set a hundred years in the future, some characters greet each other: "We are merely human. He watches over us." In a totalitarian society where God is Big Brother, what should be comforting words become the religious fundamentalist version of "Heil Hitler!" Prayer, I imagine, shows what may happen if today's Religious Right gets what it thinks it wants.
Religion and state have merged into totalitarian theocracy. Hunted down are rationalists, scientists, doctors, and university professors. Wives are subjected to their husbands—but subjected to the state first. A childless marriage is a subversive act. Reading the wrong book or using a telescope to view the moon can get you executed. Torture is substituted for trials.
A radical underground book, "The Believer's Diary," written by atheist Dr. Frederick Haas, has incited the people to riot and revolt. To quell the revolution, the authorities arrest a man they claim is Dr. Haas, but the prisoner insists he's Jacob Bergson, a true believer and shopkeeper in District 58. He begs his captors to bring his wife Sophia to prove his identity and innocence. His half-crazed cellmate Gilmore Nelson, wrapped in a gray blanket, approaches him, black sock over his hand. "You're a rationalist!" accuses the black sock puppet. Gilmore continually taunts Bergson with sardonic quips, daring him to be different: "You believe what they tell you to believe. That's sad for a grown man."
Sub-Priest Edward O'Malley for the prosecution visits Bergson. O'Malley asks, "Do you fear the revolution?" Bergson replies, "Of course! It's bad for business."
O'Malley develops doubts about how his government metes justice, as the guard Felix develops remorse over following merciless orders. Priest Alexander, assured that he's as pure as his shiny white robe, punches Bergson and sticks a gun at his head. "We can inspire your confession," Alexander says, trying to force the prisoner to renounce "his" book. Bergson insists he's never even read the book. What follows is a series of accusations, self-examinations, betrayals, and violent acts involving the guard, the two priests, the cellmates, and the long-absent Sophia. In this precarious society, the wrong statement can get you killed, but the right statement gains dubious rewards.
Greg Oliver Bodine portrays well the confusion and frustration of Jacob Bergson, as does Rob Yang the craziness and wavering hope and despair of Gilmore Nelson. We also see good performances from Joe Masi (Felix), Bart Shatto (O'Malley), David Ian Lee (Priest Alexander), and Erin O'Leary (Sophia). The script overall is excellent, with thematic echoes of The Crucible, Saint Joan, Galileo, Alice in Wonderland, and even Tosca. Churchy, sometimes scary organ interludes add to the atmosphere.
Although I enjoyed the show, I was a little dissatisfied. Maybe director Joseph Beuerlein needs to add a little more oomph, an extra layer of depth and intensity to his actors' portrayals. Or maybe it was thematic. I love a show that questions authority and casts a light on atrocities committed in the name of God. Yet, I'm afraid we've been led into believing that one mind can't contain both faith and intellect—either religious domineering suppresses intellect, or intellect shoots faith full of holes. Where is the show that champions those people who can think critically and yet believe wholeheartedly?