'Forgiving John Lennon' leaves much to absolve

When is a liberal not quite as liberal as appearances might suggest?

When he's a college professor in hot water with the chancellor and his tenure is on the line. Or at least that's the message of Michigan native William Missouri Downs' modest comedy "Forgiving John Lennon," the slight scope of which now occupies the stage at Detroit Repertory Theatre.

Joseph is an African-American professor of English at a small college. His wife Katie is a white British woman who teaches art at the same school. At their instigation, the school has invited a Somali poet called Asma to read her poetry and present a lecture. The couple are at pains to show this visitor, who is also their house guest, that they harbor no biases against Muslims.

But Joseph and Katie have no real knowledge of this black woman now seated on their living room sofa, a hijab revealing only her face. With as much discretion as they can muster, they question her about her life, culture and religion, just as she — with stunning directness in her minimal English — probes into their lives and views. Joseph is a "lapsed Catholic," Katie a Protestant; neither really has time for religion.

The cross-cultural interrogation between hosts and guest ranges from circumcision to the pope's condemnation — and later forgiveness — of John Lennon for his assertion that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. (Asma casually notes that, among Muslims, Elvis was also more famous than Jesus.)

Upping the ante, Asma invites her hosts to cite what they regard as flaws in the Muslim faith, and she will take her own shots at Christianity. Joseph and Katie are stymied, whether because they have nothing to say or because they don't want to offend their guest. It seems whatever idea they venture is misconstrued by Asma in a way that leaves the couple in a new diplomatic lurch.

So there a good deal of comic potential here, but not much of it reaches the audience. Most of the couple's political exposition, personal revelations and philosophical narrative falls to Joseph, in whose voice Benjamin J. Williams tends to harangue in a stentorian monotone while gazing at walls, ceiling or floor. Where is the steering hand of director Harry Wetzel?

Leah Smith, as the wife, manages an English accent plausibly enough, but wifey — in a play that strikes me as an underdone riff on Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" — has little to offer beyond shocked expostulation.

Yolanda Jack's quizzical, straight-shooting Asma is actually interesting. What becomes of her, less so. For that matter, the final stretch of Downs' play feels sudden and incomplete. In the end, the meeting of minds looks more like a bumping of heads, and it's hard to see what anyone has learned from the bruises.