As an antidote to the strident, demonizing voices of the “Christian” Right, Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed comes as manna from playwriting heaven. Bunin’s 2006 off-Broadway hit not only spotlights a gay-affirming branch of Christianity, it also features a lead character who is both a refreshingly open-minded member of the clergy and a mother so accepting of her son’s sexual orientation that she actively encourages his quest for Mr. Right.

Following its West Coast Premiere a little over two years ago, The Busy World Is Hushed now makes its Orange County debut, and a terrific OC Premiere it is. Under Carlos Martin’s subtle, insightful direction, this is quite possibly the best overall production so far from Theatre Out, now in its third full season of presenting quality LGBT theater to the OC.

Katherine Curci-Prenovost 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 (Ben Green), 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 (Michael Rachlis), 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.

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.

Cursi-Prenovost shines in the role originated on Broadway by the late Jill Clayburgh, a truly enlightened Christian who may not be so enlightened in the ways of motherhood. Resisting the temptation to make Hannah overly angsty (or the villain of the piece), Cursi-Prenovost gives us a woman whose decisions may not always be the best, but seem to be made with Thomas’s happiness at heart.

The Busy World marks Rachlis’s sixth L.A.-area role since his SoCal debut in The ProdCo’s O Jerusalem a little over two years ago. This reviewer has had the good fortune to catch, and admire, each and every one of his appearances and to observe Rachlis’s growth as an actor. Thomas is the dynamic young talent’s biggest lead role yet, and one he nails, giving the part an edgy energy, and melding bitterness and sweetness to make for a thoroughly watchable performance.

Finally, the role of Brandt further cements StageSceneLA Discovery Of The Year (2009-2010) as one of Orange County’s most gifted up-and-comers. As in his previous roles (in The Chance’s Jesus Hates Me and The Eight: Reindeer Monologues and Theatre Out’s Bent and Edward II), Green gives Brandt depth, passion, tenderness, subtlety, and warmth. Think of Dustin Hoffman’s career from The Graduate till today and you will have some idea of the kinds of parts Green can look forward to playing.

David C. Carnevale’s scenic design is a textbook example of how to create an elegant, even stunning set on a tight budget in a black box space. The designer’s stroke of genius: to back a relatively simple arrangement of church office furniture with a large, richly textured rectangular mosaic of Biblical texts, which Daphne Mir lights as if the sun were shining on it through church windows. It looks like a million bucks. Carnevale’s costumes are spot-on choices for each character. The production’s sound design is a winner too, with perfectly chosen musical selections and sound effects. Colleen Wilson is stage manager.

Saturday night’s audience was a far more eclectic one than might customarily attend an LGBT production, an indication of The Busy World Is Hushed’s wider-than-usual appeal. Brought to vivid life by an outstanding cast, this is a production well worth being seen by theatergoers of any sexual orientation, regardless of whether they consider themselves people of faith, agnostics, or even atheists. The Busy World Is Hushed is a play whose richness is to be savored and whose ideas will likely spark discussion long after the stage lights have dimmed.

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.
–Steven Stanley
January 22, 2011
Photos: Bill Boland

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