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Communion

Matthew LaBanca’s heartfelt true-life tale is one of a man who remains indefatigable in the face of the heartless adversity known as the Catholic Church.

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Matthew LaBanca in a scene from his one-man show “Communion” at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre (Photo credit: Rebecca Michelson)

Tony Marinelli

Tony Marinelli, Critic

The preface to Matthew LaBanca’s Communion is a quote from the Bible. “To EVERYTHING there is a SEASON, and a TIME for every matter or purpose under heaven.” It is Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. It sets the tone for a piece that is centered in its joy and faith, and more importantly, its joy in faith. And depending on who you are, your faith may sometimes be sadly misplaced.

Matthew LaBanca had a career in theater, but before that he had church. His mom taught nursery school in the basement of their local Catholic Church. His mom was also his piano teacher. While she got ready for class, he played. As he got older, he played for the church upstairs. Away at college he played for that church too. But as his career in theater took off, his routine changed. Church would be replaced by rehearsals and performances until that routine of being away six months out of the year for stock and tours gave way to a neighbor’s knock on the door requesting he play piano and lead the choir. That led to also teaching music at the nearby Catholic elementary school.

If an impromptu “Somebody’s knocking at your door” choir practice with the audience is any indication, his church choir and we, the audience, would follow Matthew anywhere. There is a Maltese saying along the lines of “His heart is so big, he smiles with his eyes.” It loses something in the translation, but it is indicative of someone who has so much of his heart to share, the weight of something as simple as a smile is often borne by the eyes. In his earnestness there is a faint tearing up. Think of those you know that will cry when they are happy, as well as sad. His caring for others and his devotion are so sincere, it makes it all the more painful when he is expected to endure a tribunal of the Catholic Diocese.

In his conference with Monsignor Jonas, the pastor of Corpus Christi Church, and Sister Joan, a Dominican Sister and Chair of the Board at St. Joseph Catholic Academy, Matthew’s ability to do his job is not on trial. His capacity to “play well with others” is not in question. It’s not because he’s gay…his partner Rowan is known and is welcomed at choir potlucks and other family-oriented events, but there is a malcontent in their midst that has seen fit to alert the diocese to a particular Facebook posting. Bear in mind one would have to be Matthew’s Facebook “friend” to have even seen the posting of Matthew’s marriage to Rowan. This “friend” wasn’t sharing Matthew and Rowan’s joy at the occasion; this “friend” was sounding an alarm that in itself had serious consequences.

Matthew LaBanca in a scene from his one-man show “Communion” at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre (Photo credit: Rebecca Michelson)

Unlike other Christian faiths such as Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ, gay marriage is not only not recognized, but it is a blatant violation of the laws of the Catholic church. In a later meeting with Deacon Tom, the Bishop’s right-hand man, whose own Diocese colleagues refer to as The Angel of Death, Matthew reminds him of other laws such as governance over the use of birth control and the support of abortion and the death penalty, but the Deacon “can’t comment on that.” Matthew is too gentlemanly to bring up how there is a lucrative career path for lawyers whose sole financial windfall is in the defense of Catholic priests accused of child abuse…and there are many!

What we, and Matthew, are made to realize is there is nothing but insipid semantics in the Diocese’s argument. They have designated Matthew as a Minister. News to him, perhaps someone should have told him! If ever there was just one exchange that could define the power of this piece, it is this: Deacon Tom to Matthew: “All I can say is your offense, unfortunately, was made public.” Matthew’s response: “My wedding was NOT an offense!!” In the defense of all Matthew holds dear, we have unequivocally become Team Matthew.

Peter betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Depending on the actual coin that is used, that translates into somewhere between $91 and $441 in today’s currency. Matthew is expected to sell his conscience for $20,000, representing a severance agreement of $10,000 each from the church and the school. Signing would mean he gives up his right to further contesting his rights. Signing would mean he shuts up. But Matthew is a warrior. Warriors do not lay down. Warriors cannot and do not shut up.

Director Kira Simring keeps this story in its trajectory. We follow Matthew wherever he wants to take us. There is no bridge from the start. Any semblance of a bridge is torn down when Matthew’s livelihood and life choices are questioned. We watch as Matthew’s new foundation is laid down and each step is a brick, and we land on each brick just behind him. And we too come to the stop signs and pause. One such sign that is projected on the wall – “Come in! This is a no-judgment zone and place of unconditional love – Jesus” makes us take pause. The hypocrisy is vehement. If we are meant to be assaulted by this sign, it has done its job.

Matthew LaBanca in a scene from his one-man show “Communion” at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre (Photo credit: Rebecca Michelson)

The production is supported by simple design. Rodrigo Hernandez’ scenic and costume design takes no attention away from Matthew and his message. An electric piano sits center stage surrounded by a small altar, four stools, a chair, and a coatrack. Julianne Merrill’s astute sound and projection design does everything else to make us understand time and place.

LaBanca’s performance in his own play defies superlatives. Including us in his choir at the beginning of the show says it all. We are relieved that he still finds joy in teaching. As he puts it, “I packed up my classroom and as God would have it, I was invited to move everything to a public school. Also in my neighborhood.” He takes comfort in an accidental meeting with a priest who was asked to step down and move to another parish. “It’s ok. Matthew, just remember. The church isn’t God.”

We all at junctures of our life know our Nietzsche…”Out of life’s school of war – what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” At the end, Matthew reflects, “…And a day that I remembered that a Crucifixion is always followed by a Resurrection. A message of Good News that chains are being broken, shame is falling away, hearts are being set free, in the knowledge that God loves me in all the ways God made me.”

In a news item dated October 3, 2023 (yes, this week), Gay City News publishes the headline, “Pope Francis considers blessing same sex unions, drawing reaction from LGBTQ Catholics”…In a letter written in July and published on Monday, Pope Francis signaled that he would be open to extending blessings to same-sex unions – but he stopped short of endorsing marriage equality. So, the news from the Vatican is there is no news.

Communion (extended through October 8, 2023)

Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre, 338 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.thecelltheatre.org

Running time: 65 minutes without an intermission

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Tony Marinelli
About Tony Marinelli (49 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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