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Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Jai Catalano and Matt Huffman.
Photo by Graham T. Posner.

Missa Solemnis ("Solemn Mass") or The Play About Henry is a tragedy about the life and suicide of Henry Stuart Matis (Matt Huffman), a fervent Mormon who struggled and lost the battle of trying to reconcile his religion with his "same gender attraction." The script by Roman Feeser is generally earnest and full of good intentions, but instead of being the tear-jerker and wake-up call to the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) community that it aims to be, the efforts are thwarted by the divisive staging and the nearly-staccato delivery of lines in the first twenty-minutes.

Missa Solemnis' opening sequence consists of a series of short monologues and phrases delivered by the key people in Henry's life: Bishop Bob Rhodes (Warren Katz), who offered spiritual counseling in the midst of his dilemma, parents Fred (Bill Fairbairn) and Marilyn (Gail Winar), and Todd (Jai Catalano), his charming and accepting lover. Although the facts and sentiments presented in the beginning are important, their arrangement in the script and the performance disconnects the audience from the tragedy. There's simply not enough time to absorb them. Though the disconnection bodes well for the portrayal of the Mormon culture that many are familiar with, it doesn't help the audience feel any sympathy. Graham T. Posner's lighting design, so overbearing in this sequence that it trumps Henry and his story, further alienates the audience.

Shortly thereafter, however, the play reveals some heart. Henry, portrayed here as a passionate perfectionist with a penchant for prayer, is sculpted into a fragile human being by Huffman and by Linda S. Nelson's tender direction. Together with Winar, who succeeds in wrapping Marilyn's love for Henry around her unease, fear and confusion, they are instrumental in helping the audience understand what Matis, one of several gay Mormons that took his own life in 2000, must have endured.

Although there are touching moments and silent cries for freedom (a nude Catalano represents pride and release from oppression) that are loud and clear, the preachiness is even louder. Issues such as Proposition 22 (the measure against same-sex marriage adopted in California in 2000) are discussed and were very important during the last year he was alive, but statistics rarely move people to action. If Henry's life and death is to have the kind of political and religious impact that he coveted and if this drama is to serve as a medium to that effect, then it needs to pack much more of an emotional punch.

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry
Through November 22
TBG Arts Center, 312 West 36th Street, on the Fourth floor, west of Eighth Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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