By LAURA CATON
A friend of mine likes to say his favorite comedies are the ones that are hilariously funny right up to the moment they aren’t—a moment when the truth of the humor tips into just plain truth, and the gut busting turns into gut punching. As its title suggests, Laura Irene Young’s autobiographical one-woman show When Jesus Divorced Me plays on this dynamic, shuttling back and forth between details both you-can’t-make-this-up ridiculous (her husband, playing Jesus at a Christian theme park, cheats on her with the actress playing Mary Magdalene) and heartbreaking (in the wake of the separation, Young finds herself alone and uncertain in a mostly-unknown city). As Young herself notes at the top of the show, it’s still a work-in-progress; and, while it could benefit from some edits (particularly related to pacing), it’s a funny and honest look at one woman’s emotional resurrection in the wake of personal devastation.
Young brings to her performance vulnerability and likeability in a Zooey Deschanel mode, deftly navigating earnestness and pertness without becoming cloying. With just herself and her ukulele, Young tells the story of how she met, courted, married, and was divorced by her unnamed ex-husband, the eponymous Jesus (though, as Young points out in one of her many excellently-deployed asides, another, more muscular, actor played Jesus in a daily reenactment of the crucifixion—in a separate tableau, her ex played Jesus merely delivering a sermon). The story is punctuated throughout by short, peppy tunes that serve to highlight the themes or expand on a point of comedy (i.e. “Long Distance Love,” which cheekily lists the technological resources a couple requires to keep their romance, and sex life, thriving across the miles).
The opening number notes that “Every Divorce Starts Out a Love Story,” a bittersweet thesis that carries through the entirety of the show. For all the heartache and pain Young clearly experienced, she handles the retelling in an admirably balanced way: her ex, for example, isn’t depicted as a cartoonish villain, but rather as someone she once loved who changed into someone she doesn’t. And just as he changed, so did Young herself—her story concerns not only the divorce, but its considerable aftermath and its role as a catalyst for positive transformation in her life. Though it’s a hard-won victory, Young emerges from the fallout with a renewed sense of self.
It’s a hell of an emotional journey to complete in a short running time (approximately 50 minutes), and the show could benefit from a tighter narrative focus to facilitate its ambitions. The songs are sometimes used to excellent effect to comment on the action, though they just as often interrupt it, pulling the focus away from heavy emotional terrain right as the story hovers at a point of catharsis. But overall, given its writer-performer’s willingness to be vulnerable and her winning genuineness, the show is enjoyable and moving and has a great deal of potential—and I’ll certainly plan to check out any future versions.
Categories: Archived Reviews