With the New York City premiere of Passion Play, Sarah Ruhl continues her streak as one of the most surprising, enigmatic, and curiously fascinating playwrights working today. After the beautifully quirky The Clean House (punctuated with periodic Portuguese punchlines), she took us into the underworld — well, why not? — with her surreal Eurydice, then satirized the electronic age in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. She made her Broadway debut last fall with the cheeky 19th-century-set drawing-room comedy In the Next Room or the vibrator play, which just earned her a Best Play Tony nomination. Now she returns to her Passion Play, a three-and-a-half-hour, three-part work she began as a graduate student at Brown University.
On the basis of the Epic Theatre Ensemble’s gorgeous production at — how perfect is this? — Brooklyn’s Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, it’s easy to see why Ruhl has held on to this play for so long. (Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage commissioned part 3, then premiered the triptych in 2005; it subsequently played at the Yale Rep and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.) Spanning roughly 400 years, the ambitious, moving epic travels to three very different locales where people are producing plays about Jesus’ Passion in a politically rancorous time: Elizabethan England (Act 1), Nazi Germany (Act 2), and Reagan-era South Dakota (Act 3). Ruhl designed the piece for an ensemble, and the doubling/tripling of roles provides great continuity: Hale Appleman is always the guy who’s playing Jesus; Kate Turnbull is always the woman who stars as the Virgin Mary; T. Ryder Smith plays Queen Elizabeth, then Hitler, then Ronald Reagan. (This is a Sarah Ruhl play. Something completely oddball had to happen. Smith, incidentally, couldn’t be funnier.) Ruhl also shades the characters beautifully — for example, in Act 1, Appleman’s character is a humble fisherman; but in act 3, he’s a completely narcissistic soap star.
But connecting all those dots and crossing all the t’s in a play of this magnitude is an enormous challenge, and after the first act — an achingly beautiful, tautly written rhapsody with idiosyncratic nods to everything from Shakespeare to The Sopranos — the effort shows. The pace slackens. And the heavily political third act — in which one character, played by Nurse Jackie‘s Dominic Fumusa, is pretty much destroyed after he returns from Vietnam — doesn’t quite mesh with its predecessors. Still, one suspects we haven’t seen the final version of Ruhl’s Passion Play. I’ll happily sacrifice another three and a half hours to watch a future incarnation. Besides, how many other shows serve bread and wine at intermission? B
(Tickets: epictheatreensemble.org or 866-811-4111)