Drama Far From The "Fringe"

New York City is billed as the center of American sophistication, the apex of American artistry, a magnet for those who want to join the avant-garde, the enlightened, the cognoscenti, the intelligentsia, or any other vaguely artistic and intellectual word that could apply. It is the natural home for something called the "New York City Fringe Festival."

Now in its seventh year, this festival of off-off-Broadway productions has a well-worn mainstream of strangeness. Read the program, if you dare. "The Semen Tree" promises "A lively song about a 'flasher' and jazz-inspired dances of guilt and self-identity offer a multi-dimensional look at how a child evolves into a sexual being." Or try "The Rats Are Getting Bigger," described as a "disturbing tale of a tyrannical mayor, Bloomingdale's, and a grotesque rat-nosed baby, including the hit song 'Why Did My Mother Flush Me Down the Toilet?'" Bathroom obsession seems to be common: the 2000 festival spawned the hit musical "Urinetown."

How surprised are you to learn that festival organizers can list among their sponsors...the National Endowment for the Arts?

It's also sponsored by the New York Times, even though its drama critic Bruce Weber didn't like everything he saw in his quest to find "the fringe of the Fringe." One show stood out as especially offensive and dim-witted: the one overtly Christian play, "Discordant Duets." Weber panned it as "quite a terrible play for a very simple reason: it presumes that life's problems have one unambiguous solution."

The play's creators, Mark and Michelle Bruner, knew they were entering the jungle of the "ultra-ironic." They simply didn't fit in with the frenzied mass of black comedies, vicious satires, and the "comedy about a gay son's wacky relationship with his newly outed transvestite father." They threatened to ruin this spectacle with their straight, serious premise: Jesus transforms lives for the better.

Weber met the Bruners' offense with all the contempt a self-respecting Manhattan cultural commissar can muster against the unambiguous: "This may be the secret of effective preaching (though I doubt it), and perhaps this kind of storytelling is useful as a recruitment tool for the born-again crowd. But it makes for simple-minded drama...I left midway through the second act, after a couple of suggestions that offended me, namely that if you are not willing to accept Jesus as your savior, you are bound to become a belligerent drunk."

Imagine the surreal picture of the drama critic who can blithely sit through "Urinetown" or "The Semen Tree," but can't possibly see the end of this play, even for the sake of criticism.

Weber further denounced the play for suggesting that Christian counselors devoted to keeping families intact are preferable to secular therapists, who might encourage you to "follow your bliss" out of a trying marriage instead of making a lifelong commitment before the altar of God. On a Web site of Fringe followers, an amateur reviewer disagreed with the Times. A woman who politically correctly emphasized she was more "spiritual" than "religious" and worried the play would be "preachy" nonetheless found "a lovely crescendo of a play that is both thoughtful and inspirational."

Predictably, Weber preferred another drama, "Acts of Contrition," billed as revealing "the wickedness that pervades today's Catholic Church." He found it a "much better, much more realistic play" when religion is raked over the coals. "To those who object to my favoring the astringent view of the church over the saccharine, please hold the indignant e-mail messages and letters," he declared. "I simply prefer theater that probes the complexities of conflict to theater that pretends they don't exist."

That is misleading. The divide between the Webers and the Bruners of this world is not between complexity and simplicity, but between sincerity and irony. Even on a dead-serious subject - the unconscionable shuffling of soul-killing, sex-abusing priests from parish to parish - the jaded commissar sees only irony, of a church that foolishly reveres celibacy and gets sexual abuse as a cosmic joke.

So let's cheer for the Bruners, who are bringing a counter-cultural Christian message to a very hard-hearted off-off-Broadway world. I haven't seen their work, but it has already offered the world great instruction. It's shown how a straightforward religious message can send the self-consciously hip artistic evaluators, who think they are tolerant of everything, screaming into the streets.