An American Gospel
nytheatre.com review by Stephen Speights
August 16, 2006
In the program notes for Ashley Christopher Leach's play An American Gospel, a series of questions are posited for the audience to ponder as it settles in, while watching Maria (J. Andrew McNeal) stare out with a strange, bemused smile during its pre-show. From the program: "Will America rise again or is it a 'Lost Cause'? Is God dead? Is violence the answer?" Meaty questions, the kind undertaken by the greatest of our artists, and it speaks to the ambition of Leach's play that he offers them to us as a point of departure. Unfortunately, if any of these are answered over the course of this play, or even addressed, I'm sorry to say that they eluded me. Apologies, too, if I missed some particulars of plot in this strange, confusing play.
We witness the seduction of a traveling bicyclist named Joseph by the aforementioned Maria; she has invited him to her home, Liberty Hall, the location of the climactic battle of some event called The Begotten War. This war, a populist uprising of sorts, dissolved our central government, left hamlets to defend themselves against each other, and seems to have sequestered Maria in her rambling mansion, with no one to talk to but her highly distracted maid and a dead stuffed lamb named Asper. It's also resulted in some kind of eerie, unrecognizable, post-apocalyptic America.
Over the course of their wine-saturated encounter, it becomes clear (well, clear-ish) that Joseph has been lured into Maria's trap as some sort of "chosen one," one she has been waiting for for years. Joseph is nearly ensnared by this intimate encounter and Maria's charms, has moments of epiphany over his own nature, wises up, freaks out, and leaves Maria and her attendant alone, forced to live with their failure at accomplishing whatever the outcome of this monumental event was meant to be, which, I'm guessing, was some sort of union between Maria and her Joseph.
I also think they might have eaten Jesus at one point.
This play substitutes, and relies upon, religious symbolism (creepy, yes, but it doesn't seem to add up to much) and somber mood for coherent storytelling. No matter the talent and affection put into this production (and An American Gospel's production team has given us an evocative design, and Laura Klein has done a strong job directing the script that Leach has given her), it remains, foremost, an evening that leaves us frustrated.
The casting of a man (McNeal) as Maria, the tour-de-force center of An American Gospel, is just the kind of brazen choice that gives any Fringe show worth its chops the requisite edginess. To his credit, McNeal chews through this role, over-the-top and FIERCE, with the committed intensity of any self-respecting drag queen. But what does this have to do with the ideas of An American Gospel? Was this the playwright's intent? If so, then I encourage him to rethink this choice. Perhaps without such a no-turning-back-now casting decision, there might be, underneath this pageant, the workings of a real play here—something that we could try to absorb and understand. As it stands, it's the kind of last-straw decision that, rather than helping us see An American Gospel, keeps us simply staring at it as our comprehension dwindles.