By Jess Cagle
October 23, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Damn this recurring dream. In my dream, Lyndon Johnson is gay. He does not flirt with Jackie Kennedy but dresses just like her for the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. In a pillbox hat and a plus-size pink Schiaparelli suit, he leads the march, sometimes opening his jacket to show off his gallbladder scar. Worse, he’s looking at me. It’s a pretty disturbing image to wake up with and could be rooted in some unexplored psychological turmoil, but I doubt that. More likely, it’s just a product of seeing too much New York theater, where historical and artistic figures seem to be turning gay at a disturbing rate. Or a fabulous rate, depending on your perspective.

This curious trend actually began last season with R&J, the energetic but unassuming all-male take on Romeo and Juliet. Then, earlier this month, two new productions opened — the highly touted Swan Lake and the highly controversial Corpus Christi — that put brash new coats of lavender on Tchaikovsky and the New Testament. The more newsworthy, of course, is Off Broadway’s Corpus Christi, which has come to be known as the ”gay Jesus” play. It has incited bomb threats (audience members proceed into the Manhattan Theatre Club through metal detectors) and protests by fervent believers.

Subject matter aside, Corpus Christi seems to be an unlikely lightning rod. It’s awfully sweet-natured and good-humored (also nudity-free); ultimately it’s too nice for its own good. Terrence McNally (who wrote Master Class and collaborated on the hit musical Ragtime) sets off on the premise that the messiah, named Joshua, is born in 20th-century Corpus Christi, Tex. Joshua (played by the appealing Anson Mount) fails at sports and girls but excels in musical theater and has a brief fling with a Catholic high school classmate named Judas, who’s played by the menacing and effective Josh Lucas, and who turns out to be bad news. Realizing his mission on earth — to spread the word that all people are divine — Joshua gathers up 12 cute, J. Crew-esque disciples, a collection of talented young actors in white shirts and khakis who step skillfully into multiple roles. Ben Sheaffer (who plays Simon) and Matthew Mabe (as Philip) also appear, respectively, as Mary and ”Joe,” Joshua’s down-market Texan parents who consider the name Jesus before deciding that it ”sounds like a Mexican.”

McNally follows closely the tracks of Jesus’ life, making liberal use of anachronisms: Jesus healed the sick; Joshua heals an HIV-positive male hustler and, in one of the play’s oddly inspired moments, a blind truck driver with leprosy. Here, however, the messiah’s political downfall — the event that eventually leads to the horribly indelible crucifixion scene — is performing a same-sex marriage between two of his disciples. Corpus Christi has been staged beautifully by Joe Mantello (who directed both stage and film versions of McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!). He has laid bare the backstage area, laces the play with music, and kicks off the proceedings with a remarkably self-effacing exposition in which each of the male cast members casually introduces himself to the audience and is baptized.

But while Mantello is working at the top of his game, the estimable McNally has written a fuzzy-headed play. What’s he trying to say? That the persecution of Jesus is a metaphor for the persecution of homosexuals? That all people are worthy of love and respect? These assertions are never well articulated, for even though McNally borrows from the New Testament (there’s lots of symbolic foot kissing), he doesn’t employ the poetic wisdom of Jesus’ teachings. (The disciples, in fact, are written as a bunch of hard-partying, disco-dancing ninnies.) After a compelling start — and before the artful finish — the play sags. McNally might have been better served by the Old Testament, which is full of more obvious dramatic possibilities and high-camp potential. A volatile deity who unleashes locusts and floods is one role screaming for Nathan Lane.

If the idea of passing a metal-detector test is too unsettling (when a woman behind me unzipped her purse during Corpus Christi, I got really nervous), you may opt instead for Swan Lake, director-choreographer Matthew Bourne’s London import featuring a radical flock of all-male swans who put a very homoerotic spin on Tchaikovsky’s late-19th-century ballet. In case you’re unfamiliar with the original, let’s recap: Handsome prince Siegfried falls in love with a beautiful princess, Odette, who’s imprisoned in the body of a swan. Also appearing: his mother, as well as a magician with the power to free Odette from her spell. The prince is betrayed by Odette’s dark human counterpart. Prince goes crazy. Prince dies. The End.

In Bourne’s opulent version on Broadway, the action is transplanted to a vaguely late-’50s/early-’60s London, where The Queen — a dominatrix in Dior — engages in some oedipal interplay with The Prince, who longs to break free and indulge his homosexual longings. Imagine Tchaikovsky writing for Joan Crawford and Tab Hunter, and you get the idea. Bourne’s Prince (all the principal roles are played by alternating dancers and bear generic names) suffers his mother and the paparazzi. His soul, at least, is set free when he encounters The Swan, a powerful presence with a well-sculpted chest and a pair of feathery britches. The Swan doubles as The Stranger, a sleek slice of Eurotrash who, in one hilarious dance, seduces court members of both sexes and makes a big show of licking The Queen, who’s never had this much fun in her life.

Bourne has stressed in interviews that this isn’t a gay version of Swan Lake, maintaining that The Swan ”also symbolizes freedom and wildness and escape.” Maybe so, but whatever Bourne had in his head during rehearsals, this Swan Lake is very gay, in both senses of the word — a good-looking, high-camp coming-out story complete with drag queens. Which is fine, except that at this point in the history of the theater, camp no longer equals cool, coming-out stories have been done better, and Bourne’s ill-conceived depictions of women — tarty idiots and mannish ballbusters — are enough to make even Bill Clinton consider switching parties. Swan Lake, like Corpus Christi, proves more provocative than enlightening, but both productions display lovely flashes of talent, moving moments, and more laughs than you’d expect. If, however, I start dreaming of Bill Clinton in a dress, I’m going to lower these grades. Corpus Christi: B Swan Lake: B

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