“Paul,” the 2005 play by Howard Brenton about the conversion, missionary work, and final days of the early Christian apostle of the play’s title, is enjoying a spirited but specious North American premier at the Gamm Theatre. The play radically revises the story of Saul of Tarsus, the infamous persecutor of Jesus’ early followers who converted to Christianity and changed his name on the road to Damascus after he was blinded by a miraculous vision of the resurrected Jesus. Brenton undermines this foundational legend – in a way that would be unprofessional to reveal, except perhaps by noting that fans of “Scooby Doo” should be thrilled – to challenge the basis of spiritual identity and religious authority. The show is representative of the contemporary “atheist chic,” which is a sort of reverse loom that spins faith into straw. So the play clatters furiously and in the end we find ourselves amid a scattering of dried-out debris. Think about this for a moment. The author and countless well-meaning and under-compensated theatre professionals have sweated over a work that leaves the audience considering nothing more than a pile of psychological and spiritual detritus. One can almost picture Brenton slinking away from the mess he’s made, whistling through a prankster’s smirk. But the audience has paid, with currency and emotional involvement, for something more rigorous and complex than “Punk’d.” So much for putting an end to childish ways.
The play begins with Paul (Alexander Platt) in a Roman prison, and shows, in flashback, his conversion and his wide travels around the Middle East, often accompanied by his close friend Barnabas (the affable Anthony Goes). He meets James (Marc Dante Mancini), Jesus’ jealous brother; Peter (Jim O’Brien), the ambivalent disciple; and Mary (Karen Carpenter), Jesus’ wife, a diseased and disillusioned prostitute. Paul wants to disseminate the story of Jesus’ life and death; they want to guard and control it. In the end, imprisoned for their evangelism and interrogated by no less an authority than the emperor, Nero (the terrifically lascivious Kelby T. Akin), Peter and Paul are forced to reckon with the squalid and all-too-human circumstances of Paul’s conversion and fervor.
The play ends here, exactly where it should begin – his miraculous encounter exposed as a fraud, Paul starts life anew. But Brenton is too committed to his ironic deconstruction of the Paul conversion story to chart anything original in the terror of self-discovery. That Paul’s understanding dawns only in his last day is evidence that Brenton is unsure of its real consequences. The play is just a mischievous and self-fascinated hypothetical - a diverting parlor game.
It is hard to distinguish the qualities of this production from the shortcomings of the written work. Alexander Platt, who was so vivid as Hedwig in last spring’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Perishable Theatre, is an engaging Paul, but not dangerous. His performance is more gestural than internal, more mannered than felt. Indeed, this same criticism could apply to nearly all the actors, who seem to think that the somnambulant script might be awakened by very loud shouting. Only Anthony Goes, whose Barnabas is well-meaning but limited, and Kelby Akin, powdered and eerily prescient as Nero, modulate the stage volume and action. Cedric Lilly makes a fine Jesus, but the character is such a cipher. That's the problem with Brenton’s characters, who have no inner worlds to access. Brenton’s writing lacks poetry, spark, and fear – “Brentonion” will never join “Pauline” as a literary adjective of distinction – so his characters are taxidermic: dead on the stage, they move only when pushed. If we learn nothing else from “Paul,” it’s that the dead never walk on their own.