A man Never Wrong,
By Bruce Weber
"The Gospel of John"
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
A critic is on dangerous ground carping about the central
character in the one-man show performed by Brad Sherrill, ''The
Gospel of John,'' that is being presented at the Lamb's Theater,
130 West 44th Street, through April 20.
But you have to admit that strictly as a literary figure, he's
lacking in complexity. A martyr in the making, he's never wrong,
just wronged. He always knows best. And he's kind of insufferable
about it, always telling everybody what to do, promising eternal
life in exchange for complete faith in him and offering only a
miracle here and there as proof that he'll hold up his end of
the bargain. Not only that, for a guy who's supposed to be so
humble, he makes some pretty outrageous declarations: ''I am the
bread of life,'' for example. Any good dramaturge would say he
needs to be made more sympathetic.
Jesus is not, however, your ordinary stage character, and ''The
Gospel of John'' is not your ordinary script. Its text is the
fourth book of the New Testament, and employing a work of prose
on -- as opposed to merely adapting it for -- the stage is a curious
endeavor that is worth investigating whenever it is tried. Of
course this particular text is appropriate for Easter Week.
As theater ''The Gospel of John'' is a brave attempt, but it doesn't
really work. This is in spite of Mr. Sherrill's best effort; considering
the length of the script (about 20,000 words) and its many repetitions
in phrase (''I tell you the truth'') and message (''My teaching
is not my own; it comes from him who sent me''), his feat of memorization
alone is noteworthy. Mr. Sherrill, an actor from Atlanta, where
the show originated, is a poised performer with a subtle physical
grace; his smooth re-enactment of the invalid bidden by Jesus
to walk is touching because it is underplayed.
Still, as a program note acknowledges, Mr. Sherrill is a fervent
Christian whose motivation here is devotional. His onstage manner
has the slightly awestruck, semi-glazed quality of anticipatory
rapture. And though John and the other apostles may have originally
offered their eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life, crucifixion
and resurrection as an urgent plea to nonbelievers, Mr. Sherrill's
presentation is aimed at an audience of the converted.
This is a famously compelling tale, and Mr. Sherrill's rendition
is at the very least instructive and certainly more lively and
engaging than a Bible on tape. But it's a performance that never
acknowledges the theatrical need to earn the audience's suspension
of disbelief; the presumption here is that there's nothing to
If you don't already believe when you walk in, you're not going
to find the show theatrically satisfying.
In what amounts to a recitation with a few simple props and some
melodramatic lighting and music cues, Mr. Sherrill seems less
to be acting in a play than conducting a Sunday school class.