Eugene Weekly : Theater : 3.20.08

Stumbling Away from Bethlehem
Good people acting in bad faith

Thanks for the whole Fall of Man thing, God. Really appreciate it.

Or so Keith Bunin might say. Bunin’s the playwright whose The Busy World Is Hushed opened at the Lord Leebrick Theatre Friday, March 14. Though the lengthy — and surprisingly witty — theological arguments of the play’s three characters suggest that Bunin’s subject concerns God, Jesus and the history of Christianity, his true topic is human frailty. We’ve got a lot to answer for, not even counting rapes, murders, wars and genocide: It’s hard enough just to love someone. Bunin’s characters, though subdued, struggle with manipulation, loss and the relentlessness of death.

Hannah (Rebecca Nachison) and Brandt (Tom Wilson) want more from Thomas (Derek Johnson)

Not to make the play sound like a total bummer. Humor leavens many of the exchanges between smart, eager, self-aware Brandt (Tom Wilson) and cool, intellectual Hannah (Rebecca Nachison) and between Brandt and Hannah’s son Thomas (Derek Johnson). The amusing quips of the first act give the performance much of its power.

But the play doesn’t export well from the East Coast, where scholarly theology finds an academic home, to the mellower West. Indeed, the western U.S. represents more than mellow in Busy World. The West signifies danger and a place to get lost, to reinvent oneself, to run away from emotional challenges. The irony of that representation, embodied in the peripatetic Thomas, becomes clear when Hannah’s New York apartment proves dangerous enough for everyone. Steen Mitchell’s superb set provides the intimate Leebrick space with room enough for both Hannah’s clutter and her objections to the very church she serves.

Hannah is an Episcopal priest and theologian working on a book about a recently recovered gospel. Brandt, an underemployed scholar, wants to become Hannah’s assistant to salve his agony; his beloved father was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. This means Brandt can’t focus on his own work — writing a biography of Christina Rossetti — and wants the distraction of someone else’s story. Hannah assents even though she sees that he knows little to nothing of church history and can’t read Coptic. She has a rather different need for Brandt, one she reveals at the end of the first act in a scene that causes the audience to question her authority and faith.

Brandt’s looking for a mother figure, Bunin has said. And in the New York Times review of Busy World‘s 2006 production, Charles Isherwood writes that Hannah’s “understated warmth is an inducement.” But Nachison (who can be quite warm offstage)makes Hannah cool and distant from the beginning of Busy World, which raises questions about Brandt’s investment in her.

Brandt needs to trust Hannah, to believe that she’s got some answers even though he doesn’t quite believe in God. Playing the bright, vulnerable, armored young man, Wilson works hard in the first act to connect both with Nachison and with Johnson, who charms in his first scene but whose lack of acting experience often shoots holes through believability. Brandt and Thomas, bonding over the losses in their lives, should make the audience feel their erotic connection; that never quite occurs in this production despite Wilson’s sweet Brandt and Johnson’s sexy Thomas.

Actors can hit key lines with too much force and emphasis (last year’s Frozen at the Leebrick comes to mind), but this staging has the opposite problem: Each of the three actors glosses and downplays moments that, in the script, give the play its emotional weight. Johnson rushes through lines and scenes, eager to say his piece and finish. Director Joseph Gilg should help fix these issues as the play continues its run.

And oh, that script. Why would Brandt risk his emotions for the untrustworthy Thomas by acceding to Hannah’s requests? How can Hannah deliver off-handed jabs at the Bible at one moment, display theological scholastic prowess the next — and then slide into namby pamby reassurances about God’s love? These remain mysteries, as does Thomas’ antagonistic relationship to his mother despite the unconvincing argument at the climax.

All of that said, the play addresses with rigor and humor issues of religious belief — and of human follies that lead even believers away from a state of grace. Sound designer Daniel Thomas uses a lyricless version of Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Hallelujah” to punctuate the play. Nothing could be more appropriate to the holy and very broken humans of the definitely un-hushed Busy World.      


The Busy World Is Hushed continues throughApril 6. Tix at or 465-1506.