Roll Away the Stoners

11. February, 2012 Theater No comments

Playwright Lloyd Suh made a big impression in 2009 with American Hwangap, his hilarious world premiere comedy at Magic Theatre about a Korean-American family dealing with the abrupt return of the father and husband who abandoned them many years before, come back to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. It was easily my favorite new play I saw that year. Now Suh’s back at the Magic with another world premiere, and this one couldn’t be more different. Jesus in India is pretty much what the title implies—a play about Jesus in India. Suh takes on the subject of Jesus’s “lost years” between being born in a manger and the loaves and the fishes and the cross and the hey. So this is Jesus as a teenager, running away from home to go get stoned in India. Oh, and he joins a punk band.

Damon Daunno and Bobak Bakhtiari in Jesus in India. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

Michael Locher’s set looks like a punk club, with graffiti and stickers all over the walls and pillars, with a huge mound of bicycle parts in the middle of the stage. It’s obviously in modern dress, with casual T-shirt-and-shorts ensembles by Brandin Barón.

The play opens with a chipper monologue: “Dear Mother Mary: Hi! You probably don’t remember me—I know your son has like a ton of friends and stuff—but my name is Abigail… friend of your son Jesus.” She explains that she’s looking after Jesus as they travel the Silk Road into India after Jesus has some kind of falling-out with his father that he won’t talk about.

Abigail sounds girlishly naive and starry-eyed as she talks to Mary, despite her cussing, so it’s a great transition when we switch to her and Jesus having your standard long-road-trip argument about having to pee, only more crude and hostile. It’s all the better because they’re riding a camel made of bicycle parts, with a big stuffed-animal head. Guys have admiring conversations about the camel and what it can do as if it were a souped-up jalopy (“Sweet camel!” “Hey, thanks, dude.”), which is only one of many gleeful anachronisms in the play, but to be honest that camel turns out to be one of the highlights of the show. (Props design is by Sarah Bingel, so let’s assume she gets the props for that.)

Bright and dynamic, Jessica Lynn Carroll makes a big impression as Abigail at the beginning, and then disappears for most of the play. Jesus tells her to get lost, considering her a drag, and unfortunately Suh abandons her too. Worse still, Jesus and Abigail have a fight and part ways in the middle of a desert, which everyone knows inevitably leads to getting kidnapped by Jawas.

Instead, Jesus runs into Gopal, a weed dealer who’s in a punk band. Played by Bobak Bakhtiari as a likeable, spaced-out dimbulb, Gopal fears that if his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle doesn’t work out, he’ll have to go back to being a mung bean farmer. This comes up a lot, just because “mung bean” has a funny sound to it.

Gopal takes Jesus back to meet his friends, a slightly crazed wannabe frontman named Sushil, portrayed with violent intensity by Jomar Tagatac, and Sushil’s sister Mahari, a chatty teenybopper who just wants to be Jesus’s groupie. (All the chicks want Jesus.) Mahira Kakkar makes an amusingly chatty, typical teen girl as Mahari, but assumes a serene air of command when she’s periodically possessed by Mary (which freaks Jesus out). The guys are hopeless musicians, but when Jesus joins them suddenly they can be a real band, singlehandedly inventing the rock tour.

Damon Daunno makes a funny regular joe as Jesus, a cute young guy who you’d never know was ever going to do anything with his life. He has charisma and all, but Jesus is a jerk, a selfish wastrel. He’s thoughtless about the needs of others, whining about what he doesn’t want to do, and just wanting to party and get stoned. In other words, he’s a typical modern teenager, only worse because everything is easy for him. He picks up languages automatically without thinking about it, and the first time he picks up a bass he can play it like a pro. (Daunno sings and plays guitar pretty well too.)

It’s a strong cast, and Daniella Topol’s direction is lively, but the play feels inconsequential. It’s a stoner comedy, padded with long aimless conversations (a comedic bit with the three guys getting confused about who’s talking to whom goes on way too long) and montages of feverish drug binges. Some of Jesus’s talk about his daddy issues is interesting, even if it’s not hard to guess what Joseph told him that upset him so much. Whatever philosophical content about Judaism and Buddhism there is creeps in as just a quick gag, framed as the sort of hifalutin gibberish people spout when stoned.

If you’re going to take on a subject like this, it helps to have something to say about it, and “Wouldn’t it be funny if Jesus was a regular dude?” isn’t enough. The show’s 80 minutes without intermission and feels even shorter, in the sense that once the end is clearly approaching it’s hard not to think, “Wait, that’s IT?” The impression it leaves is that Jesus’s lost years were utterly wasted.

During Loretta Greco’s first couple of years as artistic director, the drama onstage at the Magic was often overshadowed by the offstage drama of the theater’s shaky finances—most notably, the company gave up its longtime second stage across the hall, where Sam Shepard had debuted many of his works. It’s a shame that the business side took up so much of the air in the room, because at least a third of the work being unveiled onstage in the current regime has been impressive, some of the best the Magic has produced in years. Some of the other stuff less so, but that’s all part of the business of trying new things.

Greco takes seriously the Magic’s rich tradition of fostering new work, and one of the things she’s done more recently has been to invite some of the playwrights behind some of the artistic triumphs of her three-year tenure to develop new plays at the company. It’s a good idea, but so far the results have been…well, underdeveloped. As great as Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius was in 2009, nothing in her What We’re Up Against last year lived up to its first scene, which also happened to be the one-act on which it was based. Now Suh’s follow-up to the superb American Hwangap turns out to be half-baked. I still have high hopes for the upcoming Bruja by Luis Alfaro, author of 2010’s magnificent Oedipus el Rey, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the current Magic’s ability to develop a script can match its talent for spotting a good one already out there.

Jesus in India
Through February 19
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center
San Francisco, CA

Show #13 of 2012, attended February 1.

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