‘The Boy in the Shroud’

Rutgers offers young playwright Joe Ranoia’s imaginative fantasy.

By: Stuart Duncan
   The Rutgers Theater Company has figured out a nifty way to find new plays to stage: It simply asks a student in the master’s program to write one for them.
   Joe Ranoia is the sole graduating survivor of the writing program at Mason Gross this year. The Berlin (N.J.) native already has earned two bachelor’s degrees from Rowan University (in theater and radio/TV/film); spent two years writing and developing plays for the Philadelphia Zoo; toured as an actor with the Rutgers-based Shoestring Players; and made his New York City acting debut.
   Mr. Ranoia spent the past year writing The Boy in the Shroud — including 14 rewrites — and now, a month before graduation, the work is on stage at the Levin Theater on the Rutgers campus. Be prepared for the difficult job of "suspending disbelief," but if you can, you have a real treat in store: The rare excitement of seeing and hearing fresh, imaginative material that is surprisingly well polished. The playwright has all the instincts of a craftsman, creating a delicious blend of humor and fantasy with a real command of his genre.
   Let’s get the difficult part out of the way first. It is the year 2022 and 18-year-old Clay Christianson (Jaime Smith) is about to graduate from high school; it is his birthday and he is going to get an unusual present — learning that he was cloned from DNA taken from the Shroud of Turin. Translated to modern vernacular, that means he may well be the son of Jesus Christ.
   That comes as a bit of a shock to young Clay, a bit of a puzzlement to his Jewish girlfriend, Ruthie (Dana Jacks), and a real opportunity for Clay’s Arkansas-born Italian benefactress (Karen Freer). Additional on-stage characters include: Geoffrey De Charny (Raymond McAnally), the 14th century sworn protector of the shroud; Padre De Carpa (Alexis Casanovas), the current Prelate of the Church in Turin, where the Shroud resides — a man with a wannabe cardinal attitude and demeanor; Dr. Galloway (Jason Updike), who handled the original DNA material; and Dr. Lazlo (Jarde Jacobs), the man in charge of the Italian benefactress’ menagerie of cloned animals, including a baby woolly mammoth and a dodo bird, no less. Well, I told you, you would have to suspend disbelief.
   There is much to muddle through before we get, somewhere at the beginning of Act II, to Clay’s real concerns: What do you do if you really are Jesus’ son? How much modern marketing can you stand before rebelling? What do you do with a Jewish girlfriend?
   That it all works is a huge tribute, not only to the playwright but to director Pamela Berlin, who stages it all with great panache, and a talented cast of 10. This is the time of the semester when the third-year students (seniors) have finished up their assignments so that first- and second-year actors can get their shots at the main stage. They are a superior group, although I admit I found Ms. Freer, as the Italian money lady by way of Arkansas, to be a scene-stealer.
   There is surprisingly little pontificating, some easy, gentle laughs, a few thought-provoking moments, and lots of just plain fun. Playwright Ranoia admits that he may have to write for television, from time to time, but that his first love is the theater. He has a wonderful knack for it.
The Boy in the Shroud continues at the Levin Theater, Rutgers University, Douglas Campus, 85 George St., through May 3. Performances: Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $19, $17 alumni/seniors/faculty/staff, $9 students. For information, call (732) 932-7511. On the Web: masongross.rutgers.edu