Strong performances overcome a clunky script to bring powerful emotion to Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry as it tells the true story of a 32-year-old Mormon man, Henry Stuart Matis, who killed himself eight years ago after a lifelong struggle between his homosexuality and his faith.
Reviewed by Meg van Huygen
With a thunderclap and a flash of lightning, Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry grabs your attention at the start. Right away, we meet the full cast and are directly introduced to their fates, and then we travel back in time to see how they arrived there. The story concerns Henry, a gay Californian man who lives with his family and struggles with his devout Mormonism, which places homosexuality second only to murder. Matt Huffman is well cast as Henry: believable in appearance, soft and serious, and earnest in his delivery. His prayers to Heaven for understanding are particularly moving and effective.
Henry’s parents are equally moving, especially his father, Fred (Bill Fairbairn), whose combination of rough and tumble, go-get-’em dad-talk and his responsibility to the church endears him to the audience while simultaneously showing us his plight. Fred can accept his son as he is, but he doesn’t trust the community to, so he arranges a meeting between Henry and an LDS bishop with a reputation for “curing” boys with Henry’s “condition.”
Although deceptively simple, the set is remarkably adaptable. Lighting and a single curtain take us from a Mormon kitchen to a Chelsea pad to the bishop’s living room, the last of which hosts the play’s crown jewel, Bishop Bob Rhodes (Warren Katz). Katz’s delivery vacillates between gravity and disarming lightness in such a comforting pattern that it brings both Henry and the audience some relief and hope. What could have been a preachy, difficult scene is transformed into revelation. The humanity that Bishop Rhodes displays elevates the emotional resonance of their conversation.
Nearly as resonant is the playful (and, for a while, naked) performance of Jai Catalano as Todd Elliott, Henry’s secret lover in New York. Catalano’s easy attitude fits the sort of guy who might believably pick up an awkward Mormon boy who orders a glass of milk at a gay bar, and who might just guide him through his coming out as well. His behavior is markedly more familiar than the rest of the cast’s, which is appropriate, as the world he comes from is so very different than Henry’s, so much closer to our own.
In contrast, Gail Winar is less convincing as Henry’s mother, Marilyn; one gets the sense that the playwright didn’t like the character very much. (She’s also ill-served by an unfortunate wig.) However, Winar redeems herself toward the end of the story with a sorrowful howl of raw, honest power. Even after the lights come up, that anguish remained echoing through the audience: some dabbed their eyes, some were too stunned to do even that.
Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry is an important and thought-provoking play about the age-old battle between religion and sexuality-—two invisible forces that control and direct our lives—-and theatergoers who wish to lead what Socrates termed "an examined life" should pay attention.
Missa Solemnis, or the Play about Henry (1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission)
TBG Arts Complex (312 West 36th Street, 3rd floor)
Wed - Sat, 8pm, through November 22nd
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.