When Elian Gonzalez's fate bobbed in the tide back in 2000, many on the Yankee side of the Florida Straits made the argument that the boy would be better off here in the U.S., with our unimpeded access to consumer goods, pop culture, and, oh yeah, participatory democracy. Pope Pius IX in 19th-century Italy might have subscribed to a similar sentiment, though the goods and services he had in mind were of a more celestial variety.
The thinking is cracked either way, however, and Alfred Uhry's Edgardo Mine provides a stark take on the real events that led to the fall of the Papal States (a sentence I never imagined typing in a theater review). The story revolves around Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy who is clandestinely baptized as a baby by the family's Catholic servant. Years later, when word filters up to Il Papa, he orders the boy seized and taken to the Vatican. Under the rules of the day, it seems, Christian children cannot live in Jewish households—even with their own parents.
Uhry and director Mark Lamos are canny enough not to feed us any obvious villains, which leads to a showdown of almost sublime complexity. Pius (Brian Murray) is a transcendent believer with an unshakable sense of his own goodness ("Call me Nono," he says in his introductory monologue). Edgardo's father, Momolo (Ron Menzel), proves agreeably flawed, a basically good man unable to live up to his own myth of the unvanquished father.
Uhry bases his drama on David I. Kertzer's 1997 book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and he shows us the drama in the family, inside the Vatican, and finally in the wider world. Pius gracefully (in his own mind) offers the Mortara family the chance to be reunited with the boy—provided they convert to Christianity. At this point, Edgardo's mother Marianna (Jennifer Regan) has heard enough. Pius's actions have destroyed Marianna's faith in God—any God—robbed her of her love for her husband, and ravaged her inner landscape. Regan traces her character's bitterness with surgical precision amid blasts of fury, while Murray's Pius offers in return his understanding and love—everything, that is, except the life she knew before his interference.
The sharp look of this show underlines these jousting matches. Lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin employs sharp white beams to suggest divine inspiration. And Edgardo himself, save for a brief cameo, is an offstage presence. He is a pawn, we see, for forces great and small. Yet improbably, his story changed the map of Europe.
The second-funniest thing about Angelina Jolie Is a Zionist Whore! might well be its title; the funniest is the video sequence at the end, which is hilarious (America's Funniest Hostage Videos meets Cops in Falluja). The action takes place in insurgent hideouts in Baghdad, where hapless terrorists Margaret (Alayne Hopkins), Bashir (Sam Landman), and Samir (Steve Lattery) lament the failure of their latest roadside bomb and rancorously debate the finer points of filming hostage videos. When a correspondent from the Food Channel (Alex Cole) wanders in looking for a toilet, they figure their ticket has been punched.
The show is sporadically funny, though at times it feels under-rehearsed and only partly realized. It's also the equivalent of a jolly poke in the eye of the cartoon villains and pious patriots who staff our modern Crusades. The bad guys, it turns out, harbor the same fear of getting booted off the job that the rest of us do.