Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry

Jai Catalano as Todd and Matt Huffman as Henry Stuart Matis. Photo by Graham T. Posner.

BOTTOM LINE: An important issue, but that’s it- while the issue alone might be enough for some, if you are looking for engaging theater, look elsewhere.

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry is a play about a gay Mormon, Henry Matis, who committed suicide after struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his religion. Matis is only one of many gay Mormons who have committed suicide; clearly, the conflict between “same-gender attraction” and the Mormon church is one that should be discussed. And a great way of bringing awareness to this issue is through stories like those of Henry Matis. Unfortunately, playwright Roman Feeser, director Linda S. Nelson, and the company seemed to be most concerned with discussing the ISSUE, rather than telling us the story. And this is what makes Missa Solemnis (in my mind) so disappointingly unsuccessful.

The play opens with the five person cast (Henry, his two parents, his Bishop, and his lover) speaking to the audience. Knowing that this is based on true events, the opening feels very docu-drama- you get the sense that this portion of the text is taken from interviews and letters. It reminded me of The Laramie Project, in which the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed members of Laramie, Wyoming, after Matthew Shepard’s death, and then formed these interviews into a play I still remember vividly eight years later. A similar technique is used here, but the effect is little more than a series of talking heads: each character tells us his or her thoughts on Henry Matis’s death.

Unfortunately, the “talking heads” continue throughout the rest of the piece. Although the play soon switches to more traditional dialogue-based scenes between Henry and the other characters, we continue to learn about homosexuality, the Mormon Church, and the fact that they don’t go together. Nothing else is important, so nothing else is mentioned. Henry’s lover Todd is a gay man who lives in New York (that’s all we know about him). He likes Henry. Henry feels conflicted. The conversation focuses on this issue. When Henry speaks to his Bishop, they talk only about being gay and being Mormon. Shortly after we meet Henry’s mother, Henry comes out to her. Cue discussion. The next scene involves her telling Henry’s father that Henry is gay. Cue discussion. The entire play is a series of discussions about being gay and being Mormon. But after we learn that there is a conflict (if we didn’t already know this!) there is nothing else. There is a struggle going on within Henry. But we don’t see the struggle- we just see conversations about the struggle. This is most evident in the scene where Henry tells his parents he has a gun and he plans to kill himself. What happens after this new piece of information? More conversation. No raised voices. No crying. Just talk.

Included in the program is a letter from a professor at RIT about how the playwright “got the Mormonism spot on.” He writes about how Feeser “nailed the way traditional Mormons are frozen like deer in headlights when faced with anything that strays beyond the bounds of the narrow parameters of what is taught to be acceptable behavior.” He claims that the “complete inability” of Henry’s parents to deal with his increasing suicidal tendencies “is tragic and dead right.” This may be, but in order to understand this, an audience needs contrast- we need to see how other people DON’T act like frozen deer. Instead, the entire play is one long speech- it quickly becomes monotonous because it is all at the same level, in the same tone, and is directed at the same rhythm.

"Missa Solemnis" is latin, meaning “Solemn Mass." As such, it is an apt title for this play- the solemnity and seriousness of this piece is almost deadening. While some of the cast members (Matt Huffman as Henry, Warren Katz as the Bishop) are very talented and give terrific performances within the confines of the script, others seem profoundly amateur. The set design (by Marisa Merrigan) is well done. The play moves us through several locations: on one side of the stage is Todd’s bedroom, on the other side the Matis’ kitchen. Suitably stuck in the middle is a bedroom, which doubles as Henry’s bedroom (in his parents house) and Todd’s bedroom. The set makes explicit that this story is ultimately a war over where Henry should sleep, and with whom. And the lighting design was excellent: Graham T. Posner created a series of beautiful moments throughout the evening. Unfortunately, none of this makes up for the monotony of the piece, a monotony that I attribute to both the one-note script and the heavy-handed, unvarying direction.

I must be clear- I could hear several audience members sniffing back tears towards the end. I’m sure that some will find this piece incredibly moving. Certainly the line in a Newsweek article that inspired Feeser to write this play- “The people who had prepared his body for burial were struck by the sight of his knees, calloused from praying for an answer that never came”- is striking (and more memorable than anything in Missa Solemnis). And I must add that I applaud the effort to tell this story, which will hopefully create a forum for discussion. But then again, near the end of the play, when one of the characters says “let’s talk about something else,” I immediately thought YES!

(Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry plays at The TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street (3rd floor) between 8th and 9th Avenues. The show is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances run Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, through November 22nd. Tickets are $18. For tickets visit or call 212-868-4444. For more show info visit

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