One-man "Gospel of John" show plays Chapel Hill Friday. Too bad its playbill and Web site bear false witness...



Brad Sherrill in The Gospel of John
  • Brad Sherrill in "The Gospel of John"
The Gospel of John
University United Methodist Church
April 2, 7 p.m.

It happens every so often in this business: A company just a little too desperate for praise distorts a critical review in its publicity for a show, by cherry-picking a positive word or phrase out of an article that's just a bit more…qualified in its endorsement.

But somehow, one expects Christian actors performing Christian drama to be...above that sort of thing. (Perhaps that has something to do with the penalties reserved for bearing false witness, lies or perjury—extreme examples of which are littered through Old and New Testaments.)

Still, dearly beloved, it seems that itinerant Christian actor Brad Sherrill, who performs his one-person show, The Gospel of John, on Good Friday in Chapel Hill, has temptation.

We first learned about the show from a playbill we picked up at PlayMakers Rep last week. The ad had a series of impressive critical endorsements: glowing quotes from the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But above these was this praise from the New York Times: “A famously compelling tale, lively and engaging. Mr. Sherrill is a poised performer with a subtle physical grace.” On the show’s Web site, the same quote appears—placed on top of a cross-like figure, no less—just above a photo of Sherrill.

Now, touring shows cite the New York Times so often that it's tempting to take them at face value. But, on a whim, we decided to research this one a little further.

As a result, we'll be doing so a bit more often in the future.

Brothers and sisters, it pains me to tell you: the New York Times review Sherrill quotes actually pans The Gospel of John.

Shocked? So were we. But since Sherrill has already publicized the only favorable things critic Bruce Weber said in his Apr. 16, 2003 New York Times review, we’ll add the rest of Weber's assessment here. Just to make the record complete.

For starters, Weber said Gospel may have been “a brave attempt, but it doesn't really work.” Then, after bestowing the quote Sherrill cited in the playbill—which looks a lot more like a consolation prize when taken in the review's original context—Weber went on to describe Sherrill’s onstage manner as having “the slightly awestruck, semi-glazed quality of anticipatory rapture,” before concluding that his performance “never acknowledges the theatrical need to earn the audience's suspension of disbelief; the presumption here is that there's nothing to suspend.”

Weber continued, “If you don't already believe when you walk in, you're not going to find the show theatrically satisfying. In what amounts to a recitation with a few simple props and some melodramatic lighting and music cues, Mr. Sherrill seems less to be acting in a play than conducting a Sunday school class.”

Though links to the other critics’ reviews are grouped together in the left-hand column of the Gospel of John Web page under the heading "REVIEWS," what appears to be the New York Times review is buried two pages down, beneath a “More Articles” page.

But when you click on the oversized New York Times icon, a version of Weber’s review pops up…with all of the critical sections removed.

The show's publicity promises that “every single word” of the scripture's text will be performed. No such guarantees, apparently, apply to the show's critical reviews.

The final irony is this: The rest of Sherrill’s reviews were genuinely positive. The New York Times review was the only one he would actually have had to misrepresent to make it appear to endorse The Gospel of John.

And yet Sherrill chose to lead with it, in his printed and Web site publicity.

He even placed the dissembling words on a cross—at the very top of it.


An Oct. 25, 2009 Carolina Ballet ad in the News and Observer, misrepresenting critic Roy Dicks review
  • An Oct. 25, 2009 Carolina Ballet ad in the News and Observer, misrepresenting critic Roy Dicks' review
Of course, the locals do the same, occasionally—with similarly embarrassing results. A Carolina Ballet ad for artistic director Robert Weiss' Picasso, in the Oct. 25, 2009 News and Observer, brayed that it was “WEISS’ MOST IMPRESSIVE WORK,” attributing the words to critic Roy C. Dicks.

The only problem? Dicks’ Oct. 17 N&O review discussed several dance works in the same show. In the sixth paragraph, it clearly praised one section of Picasso, “The Song of the Dead,” as Weiss’ most impressive work…of that evening.

Tch. Tch. Tch.

Now, perhaps Carolina Ballet doesn't answer to as high an authority as Sherrill claims to. Still, the Lord has somehow laid it on our hearts to remind them both that, when it comes to representing their professional work, a passage from the Book of Numbers fully applies: Verse 23 of chapter 32, which concludes, “ sure your sins will find you out.”

Follow Byron on Twitter: @byronwoods and Facebook: arts.byron.woods

Add a comment