So this Cardinal during the Spanish Inquisition learns Jesus is alive and well and healing people again. The ancient cleric, fearing a change in the status quo, forces Christ into a cell and sits him down for a face to face. What could be more dramatic, right?
Unless, that is, you've read The Brothers Karamazov, and you realize this set-up - from a story that troubled Ivan spins for his monastic sibling, Alyosha - leads neither to an argument nor a battle of spiritual wills, but a long monologue about religious ambivalence and the church's tendency to give the sheeplike people what they want because they're incapable of realizing what they need. Jesus remains silent throughout the cleric's rant and makes only one response at its finale, an action that is both characteristic of his nature but not enough to change the world - or to imbue the story with any particular urgency.
At least in Dostoyevsky's novel, the tale is filtered through these two brothers, and our interest is more in their familial relationship and mental states than it is in the religious discourse of Ivan's fable. But the idea of a corrupt church having to explain itself in front of the guy who started it all is too good a theme for playwrights to pass up. In Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall be Unhappy, Tony Kushner used the parable as a springboard to bash the Bush administration, as did Tony Torn and Ruth Margraff in their web-TV series, The Grand Inquisitor.
Marie-Helene Estienne , however, goes back to basics. She's adapted the novel's chapter for the stage - originally as part of a trio of plays about religion staged by Peter Brook at his Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. Of the three, only The Grand Inquisitor has come to our shores, by way of a co-production between Theater for a New Audience and New York Theater Workshop. Not that there's much to import. Apart from a rectangular playing space and a chair, there's no scenery to speak of, and the piece requires just two performers, one of whom doesn't even speak.
It falls, therefore, on director Brook and the actors, Bruce Myers (the Narrator) and Jake M. Smith (Christ), to wrench drama from such a resoundingly static situation. In a measured, matter-of-fact tone that only once rises to a shout, Myers does what he can to make a high-level intellectual argument sound like a conversation one would hear - and readily understand - in a cafe. Were the piece not an hour long, he might have succeeded, but the barrage of words, often in sentences constructed more for the page than the stage, fall like lavender drops on our overwhelmed brains.
It doesn't help that, as Christ, Smith has been directed to just sit, sit, sit and smile mildly until his underwhelming big moment. Compare this to Strindberg's The Stronger, perhaps the most famous two-hander in which only one hand claps. Half the fun is deciding whether to watch the flustered Mrs. X while she delivers her desperate monologue, or the silent Miss Y, who may hold all the cards. In Inquisitor, we stop watching Jesus five minutes in because we realize he's a just wall here, a sounding board rather than a dynamic adversary.
When Brook penned his paradigm-changing opus on theater, The Empty Space, forty years ago, his whole point was that drama could be summoned from even the most minimal circumstances. Perhaps there's still truth in that, but even in an empty space, drama abhors a vacuum.