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A Church Debate Is Aired in ‘Presentment’

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Gay clergy and parishioners face considerable opposition as they try to fit in to the structures of Christianity. D. Paul Thomas’ new play “The Presentment” is drawn from this very current conflict.

Thomas leaves no doubt about his own position--he supports the church’s full inclusion of homosexuals. On paper, at least, it looks audacious for the Pasadena Playhouse to produce a play that so unequivocally advocates a particular point of view about a controversial issue. The print ads for this production encourage this impression of boldness, depicting a nude man’s torso and upper legs, with one branch of a cross strategically covering his genitals. The accompanying slogan: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Just Pray.”

Inside the theater, however, “The Presentment” doesn’t seem daring at all. Its three most prominent characters are heterosexual. Despite references to the possibility of same-sex marriages, there is nothing resembling a gay romance here. Despite the ad, there is no hint of nudity. By comparison, “La Cage aux Folles” looks avant-garde.

Not that a traditional play about heterosexuals couldn’t still pack a wallop. As staged by Richard Seyd, Thomas’ play generates a few sparks in its emotional confrontations between a husband and wife, and between a father and his (straight) son. But even within the genre of Arthur Miller-like family dramas that also touch on social issues, “The Presentment” betrays a degree of uncertainty over whose story this really is.

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It looks as though Thomas intends the central character to be Samuel Jennings (Jerry Hardin), an Indiana-based Episcopal priest who is leading a legal campaign against a younger priest, David Thompson (John DeMita). Jennings’ presentation of charges--his presentment--against Thompson accuses the rebel of performing same-sex marriages and, just possibly, being actively gay himself.

Jennings is the focus of much of the action and speaks a climactic monologue, while Thompson gets only two brief scenes. But Jennings’ viewpoint is hardly allowed to dominate. He gets grief from just about everyone in his own family.

Arriving in Manhattan for the presentment, Jennings and his long-suffering wife, Eleanor (K Callan), visit the park-facing apartment of their son Michael (Daniel Nathan Spector), a struggling actor, and his pregnant wife, Rebecca (Maura Vincent), a successful advertising executive. The younger couple already have one long-term house guest, Jonathan (Jeff Allin), who was a childhood friend of both Michael and his late brother Daniel and was also, years ago, a brilliant young organist in Jennings’ church.

We soon learn that Jonathan has some unspecified condition that most theatergoers will assume is AIDS, and that he may have been more than just friends with the older Jennings brother, Daniel, who died in what his mother calls an accident. Then, when the renegade Rev. Thompson unexpectedly calls on Jonathan, we realize that these two also once felt some attraction to each other. Yet it never approached marriage--Jonathan is inexplicably opposed to gay marriages and now treats Thompson with chilly disdain.

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Although the tales of Jonathan, Daniel and Thompson sound as though they could add up to an interesting play, with Jennings as a supporting character, their stories remain in the past. Instead, “The Presentment” initially concentrates on the arguments between Jennings and his surviving son, primarily but not exclusively on gay-related topics, then later on the growing schism between Jennings and his wife.

*

In fact, by play’s end, it’s Eleanor who has traveled the furthest, and Callan’s face admirably records her evolution. Eleanor could easily have been conceived as the central character. Instead, Thomas shoehorns her husband into that position, even though Jennings doesn’t significantly change his mind and doesn’t even argue his presentment case all that well. Hardin tries to temper Jennings’ smug oiliness, without much luck.

The other actors go through their mostly predictable paces well, with Allin’s bright timing enhancing Jonathan’s gallows humor. Michael Gilliam’s lighting and a soundtrack of Bach organ music performed by Tim Howard provide momentary respite from the literalness of it all. The production doesn’t look like a workshop, but that’s what the script needs before it moves on.

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* “The Presentment,” Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends April 25. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Jerry HardinL Samuel Jennings

K Callan: Eleanor Jennings

Daniel Nathan Spector: Michael Jennings

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Maura Vincent: Rebecca Jennings

Jeff Allin: Jonathan Malone

John DeMita: David Thompson

Written by D. Paul Thomas. Directed by Richard Seyd. Set by John Iacovelli. Costumes by Maggie Morgan. Lighting by Michael Gilliam. Sound by Anthony Carr. Music advisor Tim Howard. Stage manager Donna Rose Fletcher.

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