Besides being one of the best and most intelligent new plays in quite a while, Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.  Following a Yes On 8 victory which was fueled largely by so-called “devout Christians,” it is refreshing indeed to see a play which presents a gay-affirming branch of Christianity, and a lead character (and person of the cloth) who not only accepts that her son is gay but actively encourages his quest for Mr. Right.

Judy Jean Berns is Hannah, an Episcopal priest and Bible scholar in search of someone to ghostwrite a book she is researching on an ancient gospel, one which she believes may predate Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Into her office walks Brandt (Josh Mann), a handsome young scholar who quickly convinces her that he is just the writer she is looking for. It doesn’t matter to Hanna that right now his “relationship with Jesus Christ is complicated.”  “I’m often inclined to hire agnostics as my assistants,” she tells him. “It forces me to be more rigorous.”

It turns out that Brandt is going through a tough time in his life.  As a writer, he is unable to get beyond the first chapters of his biography of Christina Rossetti. As a son, he is dealing with a father diagnosed with a brain tumor, causing this young man of lapsed faith to begin to wonder about the meaning of life and the reason for suffering.  In the short term, at least, the job will “get me out of my house and out of my head.”

While Hannah is still interviewing Brandt, who should arrive unexpectedly but her bad-boy son Thomas (Robert Hardin), a young man of twenty-six who’s been running away from home since he was a teen, then showing up on his mother’s doorstep after months spent incommunicado.  This time he has arrived somewhat bruised and bloodied, with porcupine needles sticking out of his calf and an amusing tale of having been attacked by a puppy while hiking in the Catskills.  

The two men bond over first aid, as former medical student Brandt skillfully albeit not painlessly extracts the needles, Hannah immediately sensing a sexual attraction between Thomas and Brandt.  Later, in a move which would surely cause Jerry Falwell to turn over in his grave, she encourages Brandt to pursue Thomas, sensing in him her son’s potential savior, entreating the young writer, “If you feel that you could love him, please don’t stop yourself.” 

“You’d be hard pressed to find a single word from the historical Jesus that condemns homosexuality,” she tells Brandt in one of the play’s most noteworthy bits of dialog. “Any unpleasant rhetoric of that nature has been entirely invented by frightened bigots who need to make demons of their fellow men because they’re too cowardly to confront the demons within their own souls.”

Just as Hannah and Brandt have their personal quests, so Thomas is on a search of his own, hoping to find in his father’s writings and the notations he made in his Bible the reason for his death by drowning during Hannah’s pregnancy. What would cause a man to kiss his wife’s belly and walk into the ocean? Hannah’s own worries about Thomas may stem as much from a fear of “like father, like son,” as from any so-called irresponsibility he has displayed up until now.

The two young men, one of whom lost his father before his birth, the other facing the imminent loss of his, do indeed fall in love. But will their love be enough to keep Thomas from running away again, or worse?

The Busy World Is Hushed succeeds on many levels.  Bunin’s characters speak in complete, intelligent, well though-out sentences, and they speak about topics of real significance.  The play’s discussions about faith are quite thought-provoking, as when Hannah tells Brandt that “the only logical way to explain why God permits pain to exist is that for some reason it’s necessary.  Perhaps our souls are only forged in pain and burnished in death.” Tough words for someone struggling to understand his father’s suffering. The play is a welcome reminder that Christianity need not equal homophobia, something which recent events have seemed to contradict. Finally, The Busy World Is Hushed tells a love story between two contemporary gay men more compellingly than just about anything I’ve seen in quite some time.

This Los Angeles premiere production benefits from the mostly nuanced direction of Richard Kilroy and a stellar cast, particularly the magnificent Berns, one of the finest actresses you’re ever likely to see on our L.A. stages.  Her Hannah radiates intelligence, and Berns makes us see that beneath her clerical collar lives a complex woman who has her own struggles with faith yet maintains it because it is “the work of my life.”  Berns shows us Hannah’s warmth, and the ferocity of her mother-love. In Act 2, when Hannah’s steely exterior is shattered letting us see the frightened woman beneath the carefully controlled surface, Berns is downright devastating.

Mann does fine, convincing work as Brandt, a man whose character is identified not merely by his sexual orientation and love for Thomas, but by his relationship with his dying father, his growing closeness to Hannah, and his quest for faith and safety in a world of uncertainty.  Mann’s prim, fastidious manner makes for a great contrast with Hardin’s sexy bad-boyness, and it is easy to see how an attraction could develop between two such opposites.  Hardin’s charismatic performance benefits from an engaging naturalness throughout most of the play. Only in Thomas’s final scene does the emotion seemed forced. Whether due to the actor or the direction, this is one case where less would be more.

Still, this is a very well acted production, and one that looks as good as it sounds.  Director Kilroy has designed an absolutely splendid set, Hannah’s apartment library so finely detailed that one forgets being in an (under) 99-seat theater, and Kyle Ruebsamen’s lighting design is equally praiseworthy, illuminating the room in a natural warmth.  Chrystal Lee’s costumes are very good as well, and perfect choices for each of the three characters.

The romantic in me might have preferred a different resolution to Brandt and Thomas’s relationship. There is a bit of contrivance in the penultimate scene, without which things between the two men might have gone a totally different direction. Still, The Busy World Is Hushed is about a lot more than just two men falling for each other, and I would venture to guess that much discussion takes place as theatergoers head on home after each performance.  A play that actually provokes thought and conversation, and entertains and engrosses as well is something not to be hushed.

Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 30, 2008
                                             Photos: Olivier Riquelme

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