Sunday school was never terribly interesting. But unbeknownst to my 12-year-old self, the Bible is filled with the kinds of juicy stories about sex, death, and destruction that should make any adolescent salivate. I Have Loved Strangers, a new work by the excellent Clubbed Thumb company and part of its "Summerworks 2006" series at the Ohio Theater, draws on Bible stories about prophets, placing them in present-day New York City. The problem here is that there are far too many plots, characters, and anachronisms. Although there are a few shining moments as well as some good acting, what mainly results is a confusing work that attempts to do too much.
The play takes place in a New York that is like a modern-day Babylon. With elements of the stories of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it tries to weave together three different plotlines about prophets and prophecies. What emerges, however, is not a melding of the old and the new but a stiff hodgepodge of conflicting narratives. The three stories are disjointed and seemingly unrelated, and are tied together only toward the end. Scenes from different plotlines are juxtaposed for maximum confusion. Not until late in the production does one finally begin to understand who each character is.
The first story has to do with a prophet in rags, Jeremiah (T. Ryder Smith), who by dress and speech seems to belong more to the Bible than the Big Apple. Not unlike the biblical Ezekiel, he breaks a bottle to symbolize the imminent destruction of the land, although it is not clear if this destruction is destined for New York or Jerusalem.
Jeremiah is first seen wandering aimlessly among contemporary Manhattanites, who are choreographed moving in sync in a manner closer to dance than drama. As the urbanites discuss funny and entertaining "slice-of-life" tidbits that would appeal mainly to an audience of New Yorkers ("Smith Street used to be a dump, but now it's really nice"), Jeremiah appears to be a lunatic prophet of doomsday, not unlike the contemporary kind. He could easily be wearing a placard that says, "Repent! The end draws near."
His story is in stark contrast to that of the far more mellow Hananiah, a new age prophet (and, in the Bible, a false one). He appears in domestic scenes with his wife, who is greatly swayed by his charisma. With his good looks, quick smile, and impervious self-assuredness, one could easily imagine him as a charming cult leader. The scenes between Hananiah (James Stanley) and his wife, Ruthie (Jennifer Ruby Morris), are funny at first, placing the seemingly otherworldly character of a prophet in a quotidian setting for a domestic satire, replete with such marital problems as miscommunication, petty fights, and bruised egos. The first scenes are quite amusing and fresh, but the narrative becomes more serious and tedious as the unhappy couple's relationship steadily worsens.
The third story line has to do with a ragtag group of revolutionaries who seem like the Weather Underground radicals of the 60's and 70's. Though it is not clear what they are fighting for and whom they are fighting against, their struggle slowly becomes part of the other two stories, leading to an explosive ending. There is also a fourth, half-told, and seemingly unrelated story line that involves two unnamed persons wandering through a forest, visiting a cemetery, and watching fireflies. Throughout most of these scenes, the theater is dark, and the actors are seen by the flashlights they carry.
As Jeremiah, Smith astutely assumes the role of someone who has become a medium of God. He writhes on the floor, bends his back and trembles, and appears to be in great pain and fear, not knowing what he will say next and how much trouble it will get him into. Stanley, as the hunky Hananiah, has a winning smile and easy affability that makes it easy to understand why his wife, played in a suitably understated fashion by the vivacious Jennifer Ruby Morris, has fallen for his charms. Despite his seemingly sweet veneer, he also shows signs that he is a sinister, manipulative figure desperately trying to control his wife.
The set is quite minimal: a terracotta-colored screen as a backdrop and a castle-like gate to add to the biblical feel.
I Have Loved Strangers is a challenging piece that, in moments, uses ironic humor to show a biblical figure in modern-day life. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of prophets and why people follow them. Overall, though, this overambitious production has an ambiguous quality that never quite lets the audience know exactly what is going on. Ultimately, we would profit from a bit more clarity.