By Stanford Friedman
Transfiguration is the guiding light in Your Own Personal Exegesis, a biting new religious comedy from Julia May Jonas. I do not mean, specifically, the transfiguration of Jesus, though the son of God is the default leading man here. Rather, the play itself is in constant transformation, alternating between parody, parable and passion play. The dialog is spoken toward the audience who at times acts as a congregation, or else the characters give private, knowing looks to each other, or else they freeze into sacred tableaux vivants, blurring the timeline between 1996 and the Crucifixion, blending the landscapes of Bethlehem and New Jersey. This risky production could have been holy hell, but director Annie Tippe and an enthusiastic cast clearly have faith in Jonas’s religious service of a script, making believers out of all of us.
Reverend Kathy (Hannah Cabell), or Rev Kat as she prefers, is a youth minister. When she explains that her house of worship is “[Redacted] Church in [Redacted], New Jersey,” it becomes clear that inappropriate actions are on the horizon. Kat is a complex pastor, compassionately played by Cabell. Bitter that a perceived gender bias has limited her career and that her Harvard education has failed her, she is, nonetheless, totally involved with the teens she oversees. Over the course of a year we witness her devotion to a charity danceathon, the church’s annual liturgical play, and the Good Friday carrying of the cross reenactment.
Kat, though, is not immune to sins of the flesh. Chris (Cole Doman, perfectly dim), a hunky 18-year-old with family problems, is a seeker of faith and a good-hearted religious soul. However, he’s also hot for preacher. Worse, Kat can’t keep her hands off of him. The two are swept up in a fervor that manifests itself in sordid off-stage groping, a Mary and Joseph search for a hotel, and an intensely weird Mary Magdalen-inspired foot washing sequence with Kat reaching a kind of misguided splendor, prophesying, “I could lead a sinful life and be forgiven.”
Kat’s other young congregants, meanwhile, have their own problems. Addie (Mia Pak, charmingly lost) is anorexic, which not only messes with her understanding of Lent but leads to a surreal surrender of her body in favor of one that better suits her. Beatrice (Annie Fang) is trying hard to achieve an eating disorder of her own while falling out of Kat’s good graces. And Brian (Savidu Geevaratne) is stuck playing second fiddle to Chris, bearing witness instead of bearing the cross.
According to the script, Jonas wrote this as a memory play observed through the eyes of Beatrice. This is not at all obvious in this production, nor is it ultimately that important. It would help justify, though, a few elements of the story, including Kat’s overt aggression toward Beatrice, the fact that there seems to be only the four teens in what is clearly a larger group of kids, and Addie’s physical transformation, though it is much more satisfying to seek a spiritual explanation for that, instead of simply Beatrice’s perception of what happens to her friend.
Otherwise, clever bits of business are sewn throughout the evening. In addition to the playbill, the audience is handed a church bulletin with the name of the church and Rev Kat’s surname, of course, blacked out. The charity danceathon is staged as a full-on jukebox musical number with the cast bopping to “Lovefool,“ by The Cardigans, its lyrics taking on whole new biblical meaning (“So I cry and I pray and I beg/Love me love me”). And the play’s final moment neatly serves up a bit of betrayal that is equal parts Judas and angst-ridden teen.
Your Own Personal Exegesis – By Julia May Jonas, directed by Annie Tippe
WITH: Hannah Cabell (Kat), Cole Doman (Chris), Annie Fang (Beatrice), Savidu Geevaratne (Brian), and Mia Pak (Addie).
Scenic design by Brett J. Banakis, costumes by Wendy Yang, lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, sound by Stowe Nelson, and original music by Brian Cavanagh-Strong. LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow, 150 West 65th St. 212-239-6200, https://www.lct.org/shows/your-own-personal-exegesis/. Through Saturday, December 31. Running time: 90 minutes