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Stage Review

Show's redeeming feature: laughter

As Jesus, Abie Philbin Bowman goes from telling jokes to delivering commentary on the conditions at Guantanamo Bay. As Jesus, Abie Philbin Bowman goes from telling jokes to delivering commentary on the conditions at Guantanamo Bay. (Avanti Studios)

Just the sight of Abie Philbin Bowman walking onstage at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater is enough to make you laugh. The fact that he has a crown of thorns atop his nearly shoulder-length curly brown hair and is wearing an orange prison jumpsuit also makes you think: What exactly did Jesus do?

The title of Philbin Bowman's one-man show, "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years," answers the question. It has a wonderfully simple premise: that today, a bearded religious martyr from the Middle East, no matter if he is the son of God, would be deemed a terrorist. And when Philbin Bowman opens his mouth and starts speaking in a Dublin accent, with a slight lisp, the whole thing becomes even more surreal.

The show starts off light and funny, with the Irish comedian talking about Jesus' comeback tour and how hard it is to eat M&Ms with nail holes in your hands. God even has an affectionate nickname for his only son: "Jessie."

But when he's detained at JFK airport and sent to the notorious military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, he veers into dangerously serious territory. All of a sudden his amusing character slips away, and he's talking, too quickly at times, about real events: Sept. 11, terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the war in Iraq, prisoner suicides. (He's even wearing the number of a Guantanamo prisoner, 727, on a button on his jumpsuit.) Before you know it, we've lost the mood. Clearly, Philbin Bowman is knowledgeable about what he calls the un-Christian conditions at the camp, and he makes some interesting points, but we didn't come here for a lecture.

Please, just bring back the funny Jesus.

Philbin Bowman has performed his show in Ireland, England, and Scotland's famed Edinburgh Fringe festival, and he has some great material, particularly when he's setting up the father-son dynamic between God and Jesus. God won't let Jesus have a MySpace account -- "too many friends." Jesus tries to convince God to put out a DVD of the Bible, complete with creator's commentary and deleted scenes: Mary hoping the baby's a girl, the cross tipping over during the first crucifixion attempt.

It's funny, and from the moment Philbin Bowman walks onstage, we get the point. We don't need to be hit over the head with the problems of Gitmo; we already know. Anybody who can turn the body of Christ into an oral-sex reference while playing guitar and singing "Why don't I have more groupies?" is a brave, creative man. There must be a way to maneuver through Guantanamo without derailing the show.

Philbin Bowman manages to make fun of religion while invoking its most basic tenets: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; turn the other cheek; don't judge a man by his unkempt beard (or something like that). So what should Jesus do? It seems strange to say, but in this case he should skip the preaching and stick to the punch lines.

'Related'

Jesus: The Guantanamo Years

Play by Abie Philbin Bowman

At: Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater, through Aug. 12. Tickets: $20. 866-811-4111, jtoffbroadway.com

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