Photo by Michael Lamont

You have to admit there was something almost nostalgically familiar about the recent dustup sparked by a college production of Terrence McNally’s gay passion play, Corpus Christi. Once again, a politician alleged that public moneys were being misspent on culture, and once again the target was a purportedly blasphemous work of art. So it’s due either to divine intervention or dumb luck that L.A. now gets its very own, very professional staging of the work, at the Lillian Theater. Or maybe not, for after viewing this earnest, self-lacerating melodrama, you want to take the script and say, “You, sir, are no Piss Christ.”

McNally’s play has a single plot that proceeds as two parallel narratives — one, a contemporary story about gay men situated in the playwright’s Texas childhood hometown, Corpus Christi; the other, the New Testament Gospels with which this modern tale is allegorically connected. Things start promisingly enough, in a flash-forward scene that smoothly introduces no fewer than 13 characters as the play’s men, stripped to their skivvies, get baptized in an oil drum and create the fateful spiritual brotherhood that will revolve around a young, enigmatic leader named Joshua. (Eleven cast members also fill in for a variety of minor roles.)

Yet before long, the unmistakable scent of victimhood begins wafting our way as it becomes clear that Joshua (Nicholas Downs) is merely a dashboard saint, a passive bottom ever ready to turn the other cheek, and that this story presents every homosexual, by merely existing, as a haloed martyr.

Although there are times when the action is unambiguously taken from the New Testament, Corpus Christi is primarily set in the here and now. Sometimes Texas and the Bible stories intersect — or rather, their time planes do. Joshua’s followers are the 12 apostles, and yet they are not; they have names like Peter, Thaddeus and Matthew, but their occupations include masseur, hairdresser and restaurateur; they encounter Roman centurions, yet also kick it in steamy discos — Amahl and the Night Visitors meets amyl nitrate.

In the beginning, we follow Joshua through some awkward moments at Pontius Pilate High School, where he feigns interest in girls but is easily seduced by a teenage Judas (Aaron Lohr). In this redneck Nazareth, most of Joshua’s classmates consider his sexual leanings to be decidedly not of this Earth, so after graduation he leaves behind Mr. Iscariot in order to hitchhike on the open road, resisting, along the way, worldly temptations offered by a Satan (Leigh Miller) who assumes the alluring guise of James Dean. After this wander through the wilderness, it’s fishes-and-loaves time as Joshua gathers his disciples, performs miracles and argues with his father, the guy upstairs. “You all know how it turns out,” we’re told during a preface to the evening, and halfway through this two-hour, intermissionless night, the audience begins guessing ahead to just when Joshua and his band of merry men are going to reach Golgotha. The answer is 10 p.m. By then, McNally has played out his string of parallels and parables, and Joshua is crucified — not as a mystic claiming to be the Messiah, but as Joshua for being a “queer.”

This L.A. premiere production, directed by Kristin Hanggi, pretty much does all it can with the play. Set designer Nick Keslake’s raked, cruciform boardwalk dominates a stage apron that is flanked by catwalks and platforms, which, with Jay Bolton’s brooding light plot, create a densely atmospheric environment. Into this tense arena Hanggi’s energetic cast pours everything it can to win us over, including a powerhouse performance by Lohr, whose Judas is an incarnation of need, greed and brutal swagger. His relationship with Joshua is the play’s backbone, and at times it’s easy to see Lohr as a Judean Stanley Kowalski, with Joshua as his Stella. Justin Rubin’s likable turn as John, whose intermittent narration binds many of the play’s scenes together, also builds a strong rapport with the audience.

Director Hanggi certainly knows how to work a moment, whether keeping an eye on such small details as having James Dean/Satan burn himself with a cigarette, à la the real Dean, or unleashing the big scenes, as when the HIV-positive hustler Philip (John David Sheperd), dressed as a leather cowboy, takes Joshua from a disco to his fuck pad, only to be converted to apostledom.

Where this production lags is in its lead actor, Downs, who barely registers as an onstage presence by portraying Joshua as a wispy, blond femme (even in revisionist mythology Jesus is fair), and in Damon Intrabartolo’s cloying, intrusive music. In the end, this play reminds us of a long morning spent at Sunday school. I detected, on the basis of the house’s diminishing laughter and impatient body language, a steady slackening of the audience’s attention on the night I attended.

The main problem is that McNally never moves far enough away from his source material, the Gospels, to work his story into anything other than a literal retelling of Christ’s journey that at best is merely clever, and at its most banal is . . . most banal. It doesn’t help that McNally’s stage directions include embarrassing instructions to block a scene to mimic Leonardo’s The Last Supper, or that Hanggi replaces Jesus’ cross with Matthew Shepard’s split-rail fence — a move that seems comically heavy-handed.

Biblical allegories are a staple of pop culture, but the best ones — typically, films like The Green Pastures or Jesus of Montreal — have a good time at it. Fun, however, is the last thing on McNally’s mind. There’s never any doubt, watching Corpus Christi, that Joshua is a clear-eyed visionary and not, possibly, some deluded neurotic whose followers are hallucinating cultists. This is because Corpus Christi is not an attack on faith, but a calculated defense of it, and because McNally is not interested in raising questions, only in answering an oppressive choir of bigots that thunders inside his head.

No one can deny the seriousness of homophobia, but there’s something creepily self-serving about a play that uses the founder of a major religion to sanctify a contemporary issue like gay marriage — not because this is sacrilege, but because it’s just plain silly. By play’s end, Joshua and his followers seem less a cadre of holy seekers and more like the weekend idlers of McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!

When Corpus Christi’s world premiere was announced in 1998 by the Manhattan Theater Club, there was a firestorm of criticism and threats against the theater. So much so that MTC briefly canceled the play, until an even louder outcry from offended liberals forced the company to open it as scheduled. When it did, MTC, no doubt, became the first off-Broadway theater to require patrons to pass through a metal detector to see a play.

The tumult over Corpus Christi seems overblown today. Of course, its most fervent critics hadn’t seen or read the play. They were instead reacting to their worst fears — that the play would horridly mock their religion by equating Jesus with sodomy. But, as everyone would discover, Corpus Christi’s real shock value lay in its being a gay play without nudity, as well as a mushy defense of Christianity and the veracity of Scripture. When it comes to attacking the status quo, you won’t find Terrence McNally casting the first stone.

At the LILLIAN THEATER, 1078 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood | Through October 21

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